NEW YORK - Rising carbon emissions from developing countries would threaten the world with severe climate change within a single generation, even if rich countries were to stop their own greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow, according to new study by an independent think tank.
The study's findings challenge the notion that the rich countries mainly responsible for carbon emissions can tackle the problem of global warming by themselves, and that as a result, poor countries can develop along a carbon-intensive path until they are much richer.
The new research by the Washington, DC-based Center for Global Development (CGD) shows that fossil-fueled growth in emerging economies could lead to a climate crisis long before incomes reach rich-country levels.
The study's authors say their findings may have important implications for the United Nations' annual climate change conference being held this week in Bali.
At Bali, top policymakers from about 130 nations are working towards a new pact to cut greenhouse-gas emissions -- one that goes well beyond the Kyoto Protocol.
The Kyoto Protocol, developed in the mid-1990s, is based on the premise that highly industrialized countries of the North should rapidly cut their emissions, while developing countries in the South can continue to pursue industrialization to meet social and development needs.
"But from the perspective of the South's own self-interest, focusing exclusively on the Northern sources of this problem is a dangerous distraction," says David Wheeler, the lead author of the new study, and the head of CGD's Confronting Climate Change initiative.
"The question," according to Wheeler, "is not whether or not the South will commit to emissions reductions -- under any scenario it eventually must for its own sake. But, will it do so in time?"
The study, entitled "Another Inconvenient Truth: A Carbon-Intensive South Faces Environmental Disaster, No Matter What the North Does," predicts significant costs to cutting emissions, which, according to researchers, "must be shared without taking away from poverty reduction."
Wheeler and the study's co-author, Kevin Ummel, compiled CGD's recently released Carbon Monitoring for Action (CARMA) online database, which discloses for the first time the carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution of all power plants and companies in the world.
CARMA shows that the world's biggest CO2 emitting power plant (Taichung, in Taiwan) and the biggest emitting company (Huaneng Power International, in mainland China) are both in the developing world.
The authors said they calculated separate historical emissions paths for two groups of countries -- today's high-income countries in the North and developing countries in the South -- by using newly available data for 1850 to 2005.
They projected these trends into the near future using scenarios from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the international scientific body that won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former U.S. vice president Al Gore, whose film, "An Inconvenient Truth" played a significant role in creating awareness about climate change.
According to the CGD projections, by 2040 cumulative emissions from the South alone would drive the atmospheric concentration of CO2 past the current level of 387 ppm (parts per million) -- even without the "contributions" from the North.
By 2060, emissions from the global South could push atmospheric CO2 past 450 ppm, the threshold that the IPCC links with large, irreversible impacts.
By the end of the century, the atmospheric concentration from the South alone would be nearing 600 ppm, well past the extreme danger zone for catastrophic climate change, according to the study.
Wheeler said these figures are conservative estimates because they do not include other potent greenhouse gases such as methane, nor do they incorporate possible carbon cycle feedback effects - such as soil
venting more greenhouse gases as temperatures rise or the oceans absorbing less CO2 due to increasing acidity or changes in circulation. Many earth scientists warn that these phenomena are already occurring.
In the South, most CO2 emissions currently come from land use change, primarily deforestation, but emissions from fossil fuels are rising rapidly. In the North, fossil fuels are the primary source of emissions; cumulative emissions from deforestation are actually starting to decline, as some farms in mountainous temperate zones,
such as in the Appalachian Mountains in the United States, revert to forest, capturing carbon.
Other recent studies suggest that the impact of rising temperatures on agriculture will be much more severe for developing countries, which are usually located closer to the equator, than for high-income countries with temperate climates.
William Cline, a joint fellow at CGD and the Peterson Institute for International Economics, warned in a recent book that many developing countries will face steep declines in agricultural productivity by 2080 unless global greenhouse emissions are sharply curtailed. Some countries could face agricultural collapse, as higher temperatures interfere with farming.
"Our mission is to provide independent research and practical ideas for global prosperity," said CGD president Nancy Birdsall. "It'scrucial that the people and leaders in developing countries, as well as the rich countries, have the best available information about the choices that they confront.
The finding that the South is on its way to creating its own global warming crisis "should not be seen as a cause for complacency in the rich countries, or as somehow absolving us from taking action," she added in a statement. "Instead, we now know that the task is even larger and more daunting than we previously believed.
"To avoid a shared global disaster, we in the rich countries need to cut our own emissions quickly and do much more to help developing countries shift to a low-carbon future, while at the same time meeting the just aspirations of their people for a better life."
Wheeler, a development economist who spent much of his career doing research on developing country environmental issues at the World Bank, confessed in the study to being deeply disturbed by these findings.
"This conclusion is sufficiently startling that the mind gropes for an alternative to such injustice," he said. "Why should the South have fallen into this trap, when the North has somehow managed to avoid it?"
"On reflection, the answer is obvious," Wheeler wrote in the CGD study. "The South's population is over four times greater than the North's, so it has been trapped by the sheer scale of its emissions at a much earlier stage of development. The South finds itself weighed down by a mass of humanity, as well as the energy technologies and fuels of an earlier age."
© 2007 The One World.net