Developing Countries and Fossil Fuels

by Basim Hussain

Image: Time Magazine

What You Can Do

  1. Learn more about the Green Climate Fund here:
  2. Pay attention to discourse surrounding climate change and developing countries, and make sure the right nations are being held accountable
  3. Read more about how developed nations are largely responsible for the current state of the climate here:

When discussing the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources on a global scale, a common question is raised: what about China and India? Developed, wealthy countries argue they cannot be asked to make the transition to renewable energy if the same regulations are not imposed on developing countries [1]. Furthermore, the coal industry argues that developing countries need fossil fuels in order to catch up to developed economies [2]. How do we parse these claims? The truth is that developing countries do have a far more dire need for energy than developed nations, but it is the responsibility of wealthy countries to invest in renewable energy in developing countries so that they are not forced to fall back on fossil fuels.

When discussing the massive carbon emissions of developing countries such as India, it’s necessary to recognize the pressing need for energy in such circumstances. One of the main reasons Indians are significantly poorer compared to the poor of nations such as the United States is due to a lack of electricity. India’s per capita energy consumption is only 8 percent compared to that of the United States [3] Such a dire need for energy has forced India to rely on any available sources, primarily coal. Coal makes up 75% of India’s current energy consumption, explaining its high rates of fossil fuel emissions [3].

Given this reality, it would be unfair for developed nations to shift the blame for climate change over to developing countries such as India. For one, climate change is not just an issue of the 21st century. Industrialization has been impacting climate change for the past 200 years, with most of this damage being done by what we now consider to be developed countries [5]. Furthermore, developed countries such as the United States that attempt to shift blame to developing countries must recognize their position as imperial powers. Historical imperialism on the part of these “developed” nations is a large part of why developing countries are just now beginning the industrialization process, and thus developed nations still hold a majority of the responsibility in combating climate change [6]. In addition, claims that developing countries are the greatest threat to the climate currently are hypocritical. Arguably, developing countries are doing far more to curb climate change than developed nations. As nations such as China and India have expanded their industrialization, they have opted for more clean and renewable energy sources than traditional fossil fuels, helping to reduce their carbon emissions [4]. Meanwhile, in Germany, emissions are expected to have their biggest jump in 30 years as the country’s use of coal rises in response to its phasing out of nuclear power [3].

With these facts in mind, how do we proceed in a way in which the actors most responsible for carbon emissions do the most to combat them? First and foremost, rather than expanding their thresholds on fossil fuel use whenever they see fit, developed nations are obligated to immediately end if not significantly curb their coal consumption. Such a task is far easier for wealthy developed countries to accomplish than developing ones, and to perpetually argue that “if China and India can use coal why can’t we” is hypocritical and childish. Secondly, it is necessary for wealthy nations to help subsidize renewable energy programs in poorer countries that are struggling to establish sustainable renewables, through programs such as the Green Climate Fund [3]. This obligation is particularly relevant in cases where imperial powers such as Britain or the United States have themselves created the dependence on coal in countries such as India or China. To pillage another nation and then turn around and chastise them for their reliance on coal or oil is shameful injustice.

Arguments that developing nations are poised to be the world’s greatest threat to the climate are, in part, true. Nations such as India and China have a much greater reliance on fossil fuels than developed nations due to their current rapid industrialization. However, these claims cannot shift the majority of the responsibility for climate change away from developed nations. Over the past 200 years, developed nations have had far more of a negative impact on the climate than developing ones. Furthermore, developed nations cannot escape their history of imperialism, and how that history is largely responsible for developing nations’ current reliance on fossil fuels. In addition, developing nations are taking a much more active role than developed nations in fighting climate change, implementing renewable energy programs while developed countries continue to expand their carbon caps and ignore their emission agreements. Given these facts, developed nations have a responsibility to curb their own fossil fuel reliance before going after developing nations, and to use their wealth to promote sustainable development in these poorer countries where renewable programs are harder to implement.