The Biden Administration has put forward an extremely ambitious plan for decarbonization, aiming to achieve a 100% clean energy electrical grid by 2035 and net-zero emissions by 2050. Many EU countries have made similar goals, with Germany aiming to achieve net-zero emissions in 2045 and France in 2050. Setting aside the fact that many researchers believe these goals to be nearly impossible without drastic policy changes in the timeframes given, even success may not have a significant effect on global emissions. 

Even if the EU and U.S. were to achieve their net zero-goals, it would not have a major effect. The most significant limiting factor to reducing emissions is activity in developing nations. In 2020, the U.S. was responsible for just 13 percent of CO2 emissions, and the EU was responsible for about eight percent. Together, they make up less than a quarter of worldwide CO2 emissions. Even if the net-zero CO2 emission plans succeed, it will result in a sizable but ultimately inconsequential reduction (and only a reduction in an all-else equal scenario). 

Developing nations have increased CO2 emissions massively in the past few decades. In 2020, India increased its emissions to 186 percent over its own rate in 2000. Similarly, Kenya increased its emissions to 226 percent, Bolivia to 177 percent, and Vietnam to 347 percent. Many developing nations prioritize their own progress without regard for emissions in favor of economic development, as Europe and the United States once did. They may find it hypocritical and elitist for developed nations to demand they decrease emissions. Despite China emitting more than double the CO2 emissions of the U.S. annually, in terms of cumulative emissions since the industrial age ,the U.S. is responsible for 25 percent of all anthropogenic CO2 emissions ever, compared to 12.7% for China. Eventually, China will likely overtake the U.S. in the coming decades, but many countries will still feel the need to keep emitting in order to grow their economies. 

It’s no surprise that emissions and particularly a solid electrical grid correlates with higher living standards and wealth. According to the IEA, about 750 million people across the world do not have access to electricity. Even countries that are widely connected are seeking to expand electricity production for use in industrial processes and technology. China, the world’s biggest polluter and energy consumer, is increasing its energy production in all sectors. China has bragged that it generates more renewable energy than any other nation, but still uses coal for 55% of its electricity. China generates slightly more than half of all the electricity from coal worldwide, and is one of the major reasons it is the largest polluter in the world. 

China’s hunger for more electricity may be the ultimate hurdle towards seeing the rest of the world’s decarbonization. China is investing more in clean energy than any other nation, yet it also continues to build more coal power plants and buy as much Russian oil as possible. There is also the matter of the energy and mineral intensity of the so called clean energy technology and infrastructure. Developing countries, particularly those with loose environmental and health regulation standards, will continue to rely upon and build new fossil-fuel based electricity systems, while mining for rare earth and other metals with less regard for environmental conservation. Developed nations with climate goals have attempted to incentivize developing nations to “leapfrog” a fossil-fuel era and move directly into clean energy by using investment.

Researchers say that investment into the developing world for sustainable energy production is the only way the world can hit the Paris climate agreement goals, but so far investment has been lacking. In 2009, as part of the COP15 conference, developed nations committed to investing $100 billion into climate action annually in developing countries by 2020, but fell well short at just $83.3 billion invested in 2020. Investment in renewable energy projects is far more difficult in developing nations, with many projects costing more due to risk than they would in a developed nation, as well as greater concern for reliability of the wider energy infrastructure.

The effect of climate-centric policy priorities on international relations is fascinating. There are so many variables to consider. Many rising nations see it as their right to industrialize with fossil fuels, and claim hypocrisy when being told they shouldn’t by Western Nations. On the other hand, many developing nations are themselves most likely to suffer from rising seas, unpredictable weather, and droughts, which are all influenced by climate change. 

The world will never effectively decarbonize until developing nations and China agree to it. Rising nations will need a lot of incentives from the developed world to avoid moving towards fossil fuels, and rising power nations like China and India seem unlikely to change their behavior without massive political or economic change. It will take more than the western democracies to solve the issue. Nations like the U.S. will need to improve clean technology until it is not just the environmentally friendly option, but an economically desirable one too. 


Written by Owen Rogers, Policy Intern

The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.