CAMBRIDGE – Barring the discovery of a substance like vibranium (the fictional metal in the Marvel Comics universe that can absorb and release large amounts of kinetic energy), the earth is set to experience a sharp rise in global temperatures by the end of this century. Given the severity of the crisis, it is remarkable how much of the debate in advanced economies is entirely inward-looking, without recognizing that the real growth in carbon dioxide emissions is coming from emerging Asia. In fact, Asia already accounts for a higher share of global emissions than the United States and Europe combined.
Yes, there are many options for trying to reduce CO2 emissions. Many economists (including me) favor a global carbon tax, though some argue that the more politically digestible cap-and-trade formula can be virtually as effective. But this is pie in the sky for developing-country governments desperate to meet their people’s basic energy needs. In Africa, only 43% of people have access to electricity, versus 87% worldwide.
Europeans are to be commended for trying to lead by example, even as the US is led by a climate-change skeptic. Ignorant presidents aside, most serious researchers see the risk of catastrophic climate change as perhaps the greatest existential threat facing the world in the twenty-first century. The effects are already with us, whether record heat on the US West Coast and in Europe, epic flooding in Iowa, or the impact of climate risks on the price of home insurance, which is rising beyond the reach of many people. And today’s refugee problem is nothing compared to what the world faces as equatorial regions become too hot and too arid to sustain agriculture, and as the number of climate migrants explodes to perhaps a billion or more by the end of the century.
A broad range of problems are aggravating climate change (for example, the continuing intrusion of development into the Amazon rain forest, a natural carbon sink). But perhaps the most serious current problem – and by far the single biggest driver of recent emission growth – is continuing reliance on heavily polluting coal across emerging Asia. In rapidly growing China and India, coal accounts for over 60% of electricity generation.
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