The End of "Developing Countries"

December 14, 2009 | Yael Borofsky,

By Yael Borofsky, Ted Nordhaus, and Michael Shellenberger

In 1992, at the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the nations of the world agreed that only developed "Annex I" countries -- the U.S., Europe, Japan, etc -- would have to reduce their emissions. Developing countries were too poor and weren't polluting enough to cause much warming anyway.

But fast forward to 2009 and the very idea of "developing countries" is falling apart.

Last week the tiny island nation of Tuvalu halted United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen after it demanded that China and other big developing nations also agree to emissions limits. Tuvalu pointed out that there is no possibility of keeping atmospheric carbon emissions below 450 parts per million, much less the more radical demand of 350 ppm, if Chinese emissions continue to rise at business-as-usual levels.

While most of the media coverage focused on the threat to island nations from climate change, and their radical demand of 350 ppm rather than the U.N. IPCC call for keeping concentrations at 450 ppm, the most significant aspect of the episode is that it marks the end of the idea that there is such a thing as the "developing world."

A Tale of Two Nations: Tuvalu's GDP is $15 million. China's GDP is $7.9 trillion. Why do we keep calling them both developing countries?

Tuvalu is the fourth smallest country in the world with 12,000 people -- China is the largest with 1.3 billion. Tuvalu's GDP is $15 million (yes, million). China's is $7.9 trillion.

And China, as everyone now knows, is the world's largest emitter.

US delegation head Todd Stern has repeatedly said that the Kyoto framework is dead - the U.S. will not agree to binding limits if China, the world's largest polluter, does not also agree to limits. But the Tuvalu proposal signals that the developing world is no longer even ostensibly unified.

And yet China continues to demand that it be treated the same as tiny countries like Tuvalu. Under the UNFCCC framework China would not only not have to reduce its emissions, it would be eligible to receive investment aid and technology transfer from the developed world. The U.S., according to the UNFCCC, would be required to fund technology transfer to China.

It makes no sense anymore to assume that the flow of clean energy "technology transfer" will be from developed nations like the United States to developing countries like China. China is the world leader in low-carbon energy technologies. According to our recent report, "Rising Tigers, Sleeping Giant," China will grow that lead by investing more than twice as much as the U.S. in technology and infrastructure. China is a leader in the domestic manufacturing capacity of solar, wind, and batteries for advanced vehicles and is actively nurturing the development of clean energy innovation clusters.

Rising Tiger: The UNFCC says developed nations like the United States should transfer technology to China, but China is already a leader in the global production of many clean energy technologies.

In fact, China now produces more solar PV, twice the amount of wind turbine components, more batteries for advanced vehicles, and more nuclear reactor components than the United States. In terms of solar PV manufacturing capacity alone, China has 1,800 MW while the U.S., in comparison, has just 375 MW.

Under the UNFCC framework, the U.S. would be required to underwrite China's clean technology industry -- even while it is already importing Chinese clean energy technologies, such as wind turbines for a new farm in Texas, which provoked a protest from U.S. Senator Schumer last month.

What we are seeing is more than an end to an outmoded category -- "developing countries" -- and more than the death of the Kyoto protocol. We are watching a set of the fundamental assumptions that underpin the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change collapse under their own weight.