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Energy Needs and Efficiency, Not Emissions: Re-framing the Climate Change Narrative


  • Nancy Birdsall
  • Arvind Subramanian


The basic narrative on climate change between the rich and poor worlds has been problematic. The focus on emissions has made industrial countries inadequately sensitive to the unmet energy needs in developing countries. And it has led developing countries to adopt the rhetoric of recrimination and focus on the legacy of historical emissions by industrial countries. The ensuing blame game has led to the current gridlock. As a way out, we suggest some simple principles for determining equitable distribution of emission cuts between developed and developing countries to meet global targets. These principles emphasize basic energy needs and the equality of access to energy opportunities rather than emissions, taking account of development levels, as well as energy efficiency in creating such opportunities. To apply these principles, we develop a new data set to distinguish between energy needs and emissions-intensity for major developing- and developed-country emitters and quantify the relationship between these variables and changes in income (or development). This quantification allows us to project emissions levels in 2050. Our main finding is that meeting global emissions targets equitably requires very large, probably revolutionary, improvements in the carbon intensity of production and consumption, much larger than seen historically. We conclude that a new shared narrative that places equality of energy opportunities at the forefront would naturally shift the focus of international cooperation from allocating emissions “rights” or reductions and blame to maximizing efforts to achieving technology gains and rapidly transferring them worldwide. Abandoning the setting of emissions targets for developing counries and creating instead a framework where all countries contribute to maximizing technology creation and diffusion is what Copenhagen should be about.

Suggested Citation

  • Nancy Birdsall & Arvind Subramanian, 2009. "Energy Needs and Efficiency, Not Emissions: Re-framing the Climate Change Narrative," Working Papers 187, Center for Global Development.
  • Handle: RePEc:cgd:wpaper:187

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    Cited by:

    1. Nicole A. MATHYS & Jaime DE MELO, 2012. "Reconciling Trade and Climate Policies," Working Papers P37, FERDI.
    2. Nicole A. MATHYS & Jaime DE MELO, 2010. "Trade and Climate Change: The Challenges Ahead," Working Papers P14, FERDI.
    3. Aaditya Mattoo & Arvind Subramanian & Dominique Mensbrugghe & Jianwu He, 2013. "Trade effects of alternative carbon border-tax schemes," Review of World Economics (Weltwirtschaftliches Archiv), Springer;Institut für Weltwirtschaft (Kiel Institute for the World Economy), vol. 149(3), pages 587-609, September.
    4. Jaime de Melo & Nicole A. Mathys, 2012. "Concilier les politiques commerciales et les politiques climatiques," Revue d’économie du développement, De Boeck Université, vol. 20(2), pages 57-81.
    5. Nancy Birdsall & Dan Hammer & Arvind Subramanian, 2015. "Identifying a Fair Deal on Climate Change," Working Papers id:7830, eSocialSciences.

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    equity; emissions; climate change;

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