Thunberg seems unaware that in poor and developing countries, carbon emissions are more a lifeline to children than they are a threat.
On Monday, celebrity climate activist Greta Thunberg delivered a speech to the UN Climate Action summit in New York. Thunberg demanded drastic cuts in carbon emissions of more than 50 percent over the next ten years.
It is unclear to whom exactly she was directing her comments, although she also filed a legal complaint with the UN on Monday, demanding five countries (Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany and Turkey) more swiftly adopt larger cuts in carbon emissions. The complaint is legally based on a 1989 agreement, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, under which Thunberg claims the human rights of children are being violated by too-high carbon emissions.
Thunberg seems unaware, however, that in poor and developing countries, carbon emissions are more a lifeline to children than they are a threat.
Rich Countries and Poor
It’s one thing to criticize France and Germany for their carbon emissions. Those are relatively wealthy countries where few families are reduced to third-world-style grinding poverty when their governments make energy production — and thus most consumer goods and services — more expensive through carbon-reduction mandates and regulations. But even in the rich world, a drastic cut like that demanded by Thunberg would relegate many households now living on the margins to a life of greatly increased hardship.
That’s a price Thunberg is clearly willing to have first-world poor people pay.
But her inclusion of countries like Brazil and Turkey on this list is bizarre and borders on the sadistic — assuming she actually knows about the situation in those places.
While some areas of Brazil and Turkey contain some areas that approach first-world conditions, both countries are still characterized by large populations living in the sorts of poverty that European schoolgirls could scarcely comprehend.
Winning the War on Poverty with Fossil Fuels
But thanks to industrialization and economic globalization — countries can, and do, climb out of poverty.
In recent decades, countries like Turkey, Malaysia, Brazil, Thailand and Mexico — once poverty-stricken third-world countries — are now middle-income countries. Moreover, in these countries most of the population will in coming decades will likely achieve what we considered to be first-world standards of living in the twentieth century.
At least, that’s what will happen if people like Greta Thunberg don’t get their way.
The challenge here arises from the fact that for a middle-income or poor country, cheap energy consumption — made possibly overwhelmingly by fossil fuels — is often a proxy for economic growth.
After all, if a country wants to get richer, it has to create things of value for other countries. At the lower- and middle- income level, that usually means making things such as vehicles, computers, or other types of machinery. This has certainly been the case in Mexico, Malaysia, and Turkey.
But for countries like these, to only economical way to produce these things is by using fossil fuels.
Thus it is not a coincidence that carbon emissions growth and economic growth track together. We see this relationship in Malysia, for example:
And in Turkey:
And also in Brazil:
We no longer see this close a relationship between the two factors in wealthy countries. This is due to the fact many first-world (and post-Soviet) countries make broader use of nuclear power, and because high income countries have more heavily abandoned coal in favor of less-carbon intensive fuels like natural gas.2
It is thanks to this fossil-fuel powered industrialization over the past thirty years that extreme poverty and other symptoms of economic under-development have been so reduced.
For example, according to the World Bank, worldwide extreme poverty was reduced from 35 percent to 11 percent, from 1990 to 2013. We also find that access to clean water has increased, literacy has increased , and life expectancy has increased — especially in lower-income areas that have been most rapidly industrializing in recent decades.
Just as carbon emissions track with economic growth in middle income countries, child mortality tends to fall as carbon emissions increase.
We see this throughout the developing world, including in India,