Picture yourself as finance minister of a developing economy. An eager environmentalist tries to convince you of the moral imperative of cutting your country's greenhouse gas emissions. You soon become bored because you’ve heard it all before, and your mind moves to more pressing matters. Your country is full of problems, from economic instability and inflation to challenges funding public services. Reducing emissions is not a priority.
Even if you were to succeed, your impact on the climate would be minuscule. Countries as populous as Pakistan, Nigeria, and Egypt each represent less than 1 percent of the world‘s emissions. Your country’s emissions—even cumulative since the industrial revolution—are infinitesimally small. Eliminating them all would have no material impact on the climate: you would have incurred costs and forgone opportunities to deliver economic prosperity with little to show for it.
Yet it would be a grave mistake not to consider climate change as an important aspect of your job. Change is sweeping across the global economy as countries recognize that the world must slash emissions to prevent a climate catastrophe. Decarbonization will reduce demand for dirty goods and services and increase demand for those that are cleaner and greener. The question is not what you can do to reduce your country’s emissions but how you can supercharge your country’s development by breaking into fast-growing industries that will help the world reduce its emissions and reach net zero.
Your country‘s history has been fundamentally shaped by the development of the few products it is able to make at home and sell abroad. Successful economies in east Asia and eastern Europe have sustained decades of high growth by upgrading their areas of comparative advantage, from garments to electronics to machinery and chemicals. They did not remain stuck in industries bequeathed by the past. If your country is to create jobs that pay higher wages, it will have to find new industries that can grow and export competitively even with higher wages.
Pessimists say that opportunities may have been there in the past for countries like Japan, Korea, or China, but those paths to development are now closed. Decarbonization will, however, create new opportunities—especially for those that move fast. The paths that are opening up have not been trod by many predecessors. Some are still virgin. Decarbonization will require significant greenfield investments, and plants will have to find new places to locate. This could be a great opportunity for your country, but to assess it, you must understand the changing landscape.
We do not know what technologies will power the low-carbon global economy or what materials and manufacturing capabilities they will need—nor what regulatory regimes the world will adopt, let alone what kind of cooperation or conflict will characterize relations between the largest emitters. These uncertainties will be resolved by those countries that play an active role and master the capabilities that will underpin their future comparative advantage. Keep in mind these six themes as you explore and exploit the opportunities and threats.