Key message 2 – While developing countries are most vulnerable to climate change, they are also most likely to contribute to it in the future.

A clear negative relationship exists between a country’s income and its vulnerability to climate change. The geographic locations of developing countries also make them more likely to be adversely impacted by climate change. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are among the most likely to be affected (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Global climate vulnerability

With climate change, traditional growth strategies have become riskier, and progress is likely to be stifled with increasing burden of health and environment costs. Rising temperatures have contributed to the increased prevalence of both prolonged droughts and severe flooding. Droughts herald water shortages, straining services, and degrading land. In areas with already low crop yields, droughts contribute to food insecurity and reduce rural employment opportunities, ultimately spurring migration and displacement of people. Simultaneously, the food and water access constraints also bear wide-ranging health consequences for the affected populations. For instance, in low- and middle-income countries, exposure to six months of mild or severe droughts can increase the incidence of diarrhoea among children aged five and below by 5% and 8% respectively (Wang et al. 2022).

Recurrent droughts can escalate reduction in forest cover as the forest adapts to drier conditions, as has been studied in the Amazon ecosystem (Wunderling et al. 2022). In the absence of root cover to hold the soil together, flooding becomes even more deleterious. Nearly 89% of the world’s flood-exposed population live in low- and middle-income countries (Rentschler et al. 2022). Estimates suggest climate change will exacerbate average flood losses in coastal cities from $6 billion in 2005 to $60 billion in 2050 (Hallegatte et al. 2013). As one of the most common extreme weather events, flooding has even more far-reaching consequences in developing countries which have poorer infrastructure, including drainage and flood protection, and it can effectively undo years of economic development.

Impact on structural transformation

Climate vulnerability will set developing countries behind in their growth trajectory. Developing countries cannot afford to trade their poverty alleviation priorities for environmental preservation. Yet, the losses they face from environmental extremities are compounded owing to weak safety nets, poor infrastructure, a lack of financial resources, and reliance on agriculture. These constraints are the same as those preventing growth and structural transformation from taking place and now have an added cost of preventing adaptation. A disproportionate share of the local food consumption in developing countries is derived from local production, keeping large portions of the population engaged in low productivity agriculture. As crop yields decline due to climate change, these areas will be further disadvantaged, exacerbating the challenge of adaptation and moving the population to more productive manufacturing and services sectors (Nath 2022, Jack and Wilkinson 2022).

Contributions to global carbon emissions

Despite these vulnerabilities, countries must still square with the fact that the growth path of old is no longer viable. Energy for growth must come from cleaner alternatives if runaway climate change is to be avoided. Annual CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use in Asia has dramatically surpassed the levels in Europe and North America. Summing up all historical emissions, Asia is already the largest contributor to CO2 emissions from fossil fuels (Figure 2). Disaggregated analysis has shown that it is not just India and China driving the emissions increase from Asia, but most LMICs together can potentially contribute up to 41% in carbon emissions in 2050 in the absence of any green growth strategies, and by carrying on at the current growth with the same carbon intensity (Anis 2021, Figure 3).

With greater technological advancement and price declines for energy and energy-using items, overall consumption has become more energy intensive. Low-income countries now consume more energy per capita than their higher income counterparts back when their GDP per capita was at a similar level (van Benthem 2015). These trends will only continue as economic and demographic growth spurs more demand for energy. But with them come opportunities for transitioning to a greener growth path.

Figure 2: Annual and cumulative CO2 emissions from fossil fuels

Figure 3: Projected countries’ emissions contributions based on income level

Anis 2021

Developing countries have vital stakes in climate mitigation. As the bulk of future emissions will come from developing countries, equipping them with greener technology, knowledge and skills, and climate financing to mitigate and adapt to climate change, will enable them to cut down their emissions as they grow – a win-win situation for everyone.