Historically and contemporarily, the trajectory of the world’s economies and the global energy landscape has remained largely under the purview of the most developed countries in Europe and North America. But as emerging economies like China, India, and Brazil develop, urbanize, and grow at a truly unprecedented pace, the world as we know it is going to change, hinging upon the decisions of these new global powers.  This is especially true when it comes to the global clean energy transition and the fight against catastrophic climate change, which will only work in a scenario in which all the world’s powers–both aging and emerging–work together to curb emissions and create a cleaner, greener energy landscape. 

The success of this cooperative venture also depends largely on the innovation of new clean energy technologies and the funding and infrastructure to scale them up. For emerging economies like China, India, and Brazil (among others) whose industrial economies — and therefore carbon footprints — are growing at a breakneck pace, funding for innovative technological research, as well as infrastructure and capacity for implementation, is often lacking. 

This is not to say that these countries are not innovating or implementing clean energy at all–they most certainly are. China has pushed hard to decrease its carbon footprint and has pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2060, an extremely lofty goal based in the scaling up of nuclear and renewable energies. 

Related: Cash-Strapped Iraq To Finally Roll Out Refinery Megaproject India, too, has surpassed its own goals for carbon emissions reduction, and has pledged to replace much of its coal consumption with cleaner energy alternatives. The problem is that the growth of these emerging economies is so rapid that the demand for energy quite simply outpaces the growth of clean energy infrastructure.

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“Six of these emerging economies – Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico and South Africa – contributed more than 40% of the global CO? emissions in 2019. That’s 1.5 times the combined emissions from the US and Europe,” The Conversation reported this week, based on data from BP’s 2020 statistical review. “Yet at the same time China, India, and Brazil were the first, fourth and sixth largest producers of renewable electricity.”

This circumstance, argues The Conversation, places these three countries’ economies–the three largest of all emerging economies–at the crux of the issue for a global clean energy transition. China, India, and Brazil “are now at a crucial juncture, faced with immense potential to become major innovators in the development of clean energy technology.” And, to a great extent, they are already making earnest efforts to do so.

In India, while there hasn’t been a considerable push into renewable energies yet, there has been a concerted effort to improve energy efficiency. For example, there has been a massive campaign to roll out huge volumes of light emitting diode (LED) bulbs over five years. This puts a considerable dent in the nation’s energy consumption, as LED bulbs are much more energy efficient and have a longer life than other kinds of lightbulbs. While this may not be the sexiest energy-saving program, it’s making serious headway. “India’s LED transition is estimated to save more than 40 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity each year – roughly enough to power 37 million average Indian households or the whole of Denmark for one year,” reports The Conversation. “In three years, the country grew from a negligible share of the global LED market to about 10%.” 

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In China, in addition to a huge expansion of nuclear energy (which emits no carbon dioxide), there has been a huge effort to scale up the solar energy industry. The world’s second-biggest economy has become the world’s single-biggest manufacturer–and the largest market–for solar photovoltaic (PV) cells and modules. China is now responsible for a full 69 percent of the entire world’s production and has also been largely responsible for the global decline in solar panel costs. “Between 2014 and 2018, China added about 158 gigawatts of solar PV – about the same as the total power generation capacity of Brazil,” reports The Conversation.

While renewable energy and climate change have most certainly not been on the top of the list of priorities for Brazil’s President Bolsonaro, there is also a considerable success story to be told for Brazil’s biofuel industry and what The Conversation characterizes as “Brazil’s long-term growth to become the largest producer, exporter and market for ethanol biofuel made from sugarcane.” However, there are some considerable drawbacks to this development. While ethanol-run cars have expanded massively in Brazil, meaning that less gasoline is combusted, biofuels have their fair share of negative environmental externalities. They are still combusted, meaning they still result in carbon emissions, and while they don’t require the extraction of fossil fuels, they very often lead to extremely destructive practices of deforestation and wide-scale monocropping that results in “soil erosion, air and water pollution, and the consolidation of land ownership among large ethanol producers.” but, according to The Conversation, “when you look at the full lifecycle of sugarcane ethanol fuel, from crop to car, its greenhouse gas emissions are lower than those from gasoline or corn ethanol.”

These case studies are illustrative of a number of lessons: emerging economies are essential for meeting global climate change goals, and they are making an effort to step up to the plate. However, these measures do not yet go nearly far enough, and not all “green” energy solutions are created equal. As in any country, it’s important to be critical of the distinction between green and greenwashed. In order to meet global emissions targets, a worldwide coordinated effort is needed, and while the first steps are being taken, a lot more can and should be done to support emerging economies through their own energy transitions

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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