How to Get Maximum Greenhouse Gas Reductions in Emerging Economies, Part II: India, Mexico, South Africa, South Korea

Written by Moritz Bühner   // June 25, 2013  

Last week, I critically reviewed the term emerging economy and concluded that, given the lack of an appropriate alternative, it remains all right to use it even though some of the countries it refers to have long since emerged. Moreover, with the help of a report from Germany, we discovered the most effective ways to reduce future greenhouse gas emissions, specifically in Brazil and in China. Today, sticking to the very same report (“Emerging economies – potentials, pledges and fair shares of greenhouse gas reductions”, German Federal Environment Agency, English PDF download at, we’ll explore how India, Mexico, South Africa and South Korea have said they will reduce their climate impact by 2020. Furthermore, we’ll see how ambitious their official pledge is and for which sectors, to what degree their highest specific potential is hidden, and how each country’s performance compares to the globally shared responsibility requiring all countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

India: Still Low Per-Capita Emissions; Fear of Growth Slowdown

Here we go. Let’s start with India, which is noteworthy for pledging to reduce its carbon intensity by 20-25% from 2005 to 2020. That’s still only half as ambitious as China and just as in China, decision makers fear that an absolute emission cap would harm the national economy, overwhelming any potential competitive edge because of too much commitment to fostering green growth. If the goal of reducing carbon intensity by 20-25% is reached, it means that each circulating Indian rupee in the year 2020 will produce one-fifth to one-fourth less carbon dioxide than its predecessors did in 2005. That is the political goal: a relative decrease in emissions. No double decoupling happening. But what about the country’s actual potential?

Renewable electricity sources, wrote the authors of the above mentioned meta-study, have a “very significant” potential. Through ongoing development in recent years, these have become more cost-effective now than at the time the previous study’s conclusions were drawn. This means that both in China and in India, there is an ever-growing potential to make the electricity supply less carbon-intensive at an ever decreasing cost. What’s more, energy efficiency in industry is a big topic. As readers of this blog know very well, energy and material efficiency measures pay off quicker than most people think. Apparently, after having compared four exhaustive studies on India, the authors of the emerging economies report shared this view, adding that alternative production routes would save further emissions:

The measures include efficiency in paper, steel and cement as well as more efficient pumps in various industrial branches. According to the studies used, the major part of this potential is available at negative or very low costs. […] Alternative production routes: The potential in this area is between 40 to 125 MtCO 2 e/a in 2020. Measures included are blended cement, steel recycling and gas-based direct reduced iron (DRI). The numbers used come from (TERI, CCAP 2006) and (McKinsey & Company 2009b).

Concerning transportation, Indian municipalities are as challenged as all others in the world. They should improve public transportation networks and encourage their citizens to switch. The inevitable remaining share of private transportation should see increased fuel efficiency requirements, although new vehicle efficiency is already rated “quite high” by international standards. Here, natural gas and e-mobility, especially “electric two-wheelers”, are two technologies that can make a worthwhile difference. However, better rail service would not only benefit passenger transportation, but also freight services. How high the cost would be for a “modal shift” in cargo is still disputed:

In terms of costs, literature takes very different positions: While McKinsey put measures related to modal shift into their most expensive and most difficult to implement category, TERI finds negative costs for these measures. Because of the strong co-benefits to the population, we rate most of the potential from McKinsey as „co-benefits“.

Efficiency Right from the Start?

The Indian building sector provides an extensive array of cost-efficient, “no-regret” opportunities to reduce emissions. Low energy housing is one keyword, and big increments in efficiency can be obtained in many ways. Electric appliances, street lighting, wood stoves and biogas are some of the most cost-efficient ones. While these measures would suit most developed countries just as neatly, the authors explained why they merit specific attention in emerging economies like India:

With increasing access to electricity, India’s population will rely more heavily on electrical appliances. This can be seen as an opportunity to introduce efficient appliances from the beginning on before the market is flooded with inefficient equipment.

Taking into consideration all these measures and their potential to save greenhouse gases, how does the official pledge to reduce the Indian economy’s carbon intensity by 20-25%, compare? And what do the effort sharing strategies indicate?

Mitigation potential is available to a greater extent than that which would be required by the most stringent effort sharing approaches. […] This supports the need for international support for India to realise this mitigation potential.

Remember? Effort sharing relates to each country’s individual responsibility to keep global emissions below a certain threshold, in order to not exceed a global warming of 2°C by 2100. Because of its comparatively recent economic development and its low per-capita emission level, all effort sharing approaches grant India a relatively high liberty to pollute. This explains how the actual, realistic potential to save emissions can be greater than India’s theoretical fair share of emissions. It has to be said, though, that this by no means can be construed as an excuse to not exploit the full potential. As the authors asserted, with international support, it is possible to realize the full potential for mitigation.

Mexico: Data uncertain, Diverse Industrial Sector, Ambitious Pledge

As mentioned in last week’s article, Brazil and Mexico have one thing in common: in both countries, it is hard to find reliable data on a big part of national emissions:

The most important source for uncertainty in determining projected emissions is the land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) sector. Data is still scarce for this sector and quality varies.

Mexico’s pledge to reduce its level of greenhouse gas emissions by 30% in 2020 is ambitious. Unlike China and India, Mexico does not refer to a reduction in its carbon intensity, but rather to an absolute reduction of emissions: almost one third less greenhouse gases from Mexican chimneys, exhaust pipes and chopped forests in 2020. And, in the long run up to 2050, the target is for only half the emissions of 2000.

As always, electricity generation in Mexico could feature a greater share of renewables. More specifically, a big potential for large hydro and geothermal energy is foreseen, but wind power and small hydro should not be underestimated either. The latter both come at low or moderate cost. Concentrated solarthermal power (CSP) and offshore wind power are not expected to be operating on a large scale before 2030 and are considered to be in the ambitious cost category. Also projected for 2030 are directly fired biomass plants, partly co-fired with biogas.

Mexico’s industrial sector is marked by “very large differences in technologies and efficiency”. Apart from cogeneration and GHG reporting, there have not been any reduction measures that were so far the focus of public planning. This leaves an even higher potential for future reductions:

The reduction potential for the efficiency of industrial processes is estimated to be between 9.6 and 15.4 MtCO 2 e/a in 2020. Activities include the increased efficiency of industrial motors and cogeneration. The 4th National Communication also gives an estimate for general reduction of energy intensity in industry. Johnson et al. (2009) provide a cost range from -19.50 US$ for industrial motors to 4.90 US$ for bagasse cogeneration.

Stopping Deforestation, Starting Landfill-Gas Management

Waste management improvements, like wastewater treatment and landfill-gas management, can save not only more than a third of the usual emissions, but both are also cost efficient and come with the co-benefits of better air quality and better public health.

Mexico’s location in the direct neighborhood of the United States leads to a situation similar to eastern Europe’s in the late 1990s. Both areas have neighbors with strong vehicle emission standards and that produce a constant flow of cheap, used cars. As a consequence, the car fleet in Mexico has a high average age and, consequently, a high level of emissions from passenger transport. This makes it even more important to improve public transportation, electrify urban transit, and move freight via rail.

Don’t get me wrong in my next comparison: the two countries couldn’t be more different. But in terms of stove inefficiency, Mexicans face the same problems Tajiks do:

The use of solar thermal water heating technologies is a highly cost efficient measure to decrease emissions from households. […] It provides households with long term savings on their energy bill and provides overall negative cost. […] Johnson et al. (2009) focus on the potential from efficient cooking stoves. This measure not only has a noteworthy reduction potential, but also large co-benefits for health, time used for firewood gathering and environmental protection.

Concerning land use, Mexico could save a considerable amount of greenhouse gases by pushing for reforestation. However, it would be even better, two to six times better (depending on the data source), for the climate if deforestation was stopped in the first place. Currently, forests are being converted into other forms of land use such as meat production (pastures), export crop production, and, in addition, tourism-related construction activities.

All in all, Mexico could indeed realize its pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions by almost a third. The good news that the study delivered is that it wouldn’t cost a fortune to do so:

According to the potential as identified in the studies Mexico could achieve its pledge at no or moderate cost if it fully implemented all measures.

The bad news, however, is that the pledge has a precondition. A pretty vague one, as it turns out:

Mexico has made the pledge conditional to international support. It has so far not specified how much funding and which types of other support would be required to achieve the pledge. As time is running out fast to implement measures that achieve substantial reductions by 2020, it would be useful to quantify the requirements for international funding.

In an international context, “it can be concluded that Mexico’s pledge can be rated ambitious compared to the different effort sharing calculations”. However, the high potential shown above needs to be put into practice now, otherwise, “with each year of inaction”, “the achievement of the pledge” becomes “more and more difficult and costly”. Rings a bell? Yes, last week I quoted the authors’ reiteration of the ever-repeated, yet never accomplished truth: “With every year delay in action, we can achieve less of the reduction potential”.

South Africa: 75% Coal Energy Supply The Biggest Challenge

When it comes to its history, South Africa’s record of Apartheid is certainly not a remarkably positive story. However, during the course of its political isolation, South Africa developed a remarkable sense of energy independence. Unfortunately, the most abundant energy source within its political borders is coal. Which led to the situation that the entire country’s energy supply, even today, relies on this heavily carbon-intensive resource. Electricity is produced in coal-fired power plants and even fuel for transport is coal-derived via a process called CTL, coal to liquid. Directly or indirectly, 75% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions come from coal.

The consequence of this is even more dramatic, as electricity has a dominant role in the country: apart from transport and coal in industry it is used as the energy carrier for most uses in all sectors (e.g. air and water heating in formal housing is almost exclusively reliant on electricity).

The large-scale, centralized infrastructure that is needed to provide fossil-powered energy relies on big investments with long amortization periods. This is one of the reasons why short-term GHG reductions are difficult to achieve in South Africa. Its official pledge to reduce 2020 emissions by 34%, when compared to the business as usual scenario, can thus be described as highly ambitious. Being aware of this state of affairs when making its pledge, South African officials demanded international funding and expertise:

South Africa stresses that the extent to which these emission reductions will be achieved is conditional “on the provision of financial resources, the transfer of technology and capacity building support by developed countries” (DEA 2010). Thus, one major uncertainty regarding South Africa’s emissions mitigation potential is how far the international negotiations are successful in providing support to South Africa.

Biggest Short- and Mid-Term Potential: Energy Efficiency in Industry

Despite these difficulties, there are two ways to cut down on emissions now. First, when making full use of the SARI-framework, the South African Renewables Initiative, we can expect a maximum capacity of 3600 MW wind and solar power. Second:

The largest short to mid-term mitigation potential in South Africa is derived from improved energy efficiency in industry, which by itself could contribute to an 8% emission reduction by 2020 (of South Africa’s total emissions)[…] Actions comprise both reductions in electricity and coal use (optimisation of boilers, steam systems, process heat, compressed air, HVAC and others) (Winkler 2007a), (Winkler 2010).

Just like everywhere else in the Global South, waste management offers a sizable efficiency potential. Of all measures in this field, landfill gas emission reduction and electricity generation from landfill gas are best. They’re said to have a “substantial short mitigation potential”. When it comes to buildings, key improvements include “more efficient lighting and appliances, better insulated houses” and “solar thermal devices for water heating”.

The usual suggestions for personal mobility, however, especially the call for more public transportation, face one particularity in South Africa. Despite the “huge long-term potential [for] improving vehicle energy efficiency and modal shift”, there is a big short- and medium- term hurdle called the high crime rate. The only effective measure that’s left for the short run is vehicle efficiency:

[W]hile the transport means for low-income people are already quite energy efficient (e.g. trains and minibuses), the big polluters are the growing number of private cars. However, high crime rates and urban sprawl are strong barriers to a short-term increase in public transport for the middle class. With respect to raising the energy efficiency of vehicles, international assessments show a strong short-term potential (IEA 2009).

What are the consequences of this particular situation for climate protection efforts? Does the country, if it really manages to meet its pledge, also fulfill its international responsibility? Fekete et al. have the answers:

South Africa’s pledge is in line with or even more ambitious than mitigation responsibilities according to the effort sharing regimes of GDR, SN and Triptych (see Fig. 34), which are based on responsibility and capability criteria. However, South Africa has relatively high emissions per capita already (>9 tCO 2 e/person in 2008). Consequently the pledge is not ambitious enough to meet the criteria of per capita based equity models. […]
In conclusion, South Africa has a tremendous mid to long-term mitigation potential at moderate cost. However, meeting the country’s 2020 target will require strong short-term action. South Africa will have to address all available mitigation options simultaneously, including more costly options. […] A large short-term mitigation potential exists specifically in the fields of energy efficiency, renewable energy, waste and land-use change. Immediate action is required to ensure its full deployment – not only to meet the countries 2020 target, but also to facilitate a cost-effective long-term mitigation pathway.

South Korea: Ambitious Target, But No Data

Korea’s growth color is officially green. This was announced in 2008, along with a low-carbon future, by the president himself. Translated into numbers, the Korean interpretation of “green” equals a 30% lower greenhouse gas emission figure than projected by the IPCC business-as-usual scenario for 2020. Each economic sector has its own target, ranging from 5.2% for agriculture to 34.3% for the transport sector.

Most of the recommendations for lowering carbon emissions are already on their way to implementation in South Korea. Politically, at least:

In total the government currently lists 14 strategies to support its overarching Low Carbon, Green Growth strategy, including reduced energy demand in the industrial sector, expansion of the supply of renewable energy sources, efficiency improvements, promotion of energy-saving buildings, improvement of public transport, protection/expansion of carbon sinks in forestry, and waste reduction.

Further improvement could be achieved by increasing the price of energy, which is currently “very low and partly subsidized”. And two of the studies Fekete et al. looked at said a boost to renewable electricity generation is not being sufficiently fostered. While this result does not come as a surprise, the financial calculation for future energy supply does:

As the energy (r)evolution study by Greenpeace and EREC suggests, the share of renewables could be developed more strongly than is suggested in South Korea’s pledge. Up to 21 MtCO 2 e/a could be saved in the most ambitious Greenpeace scenario in 2020. Greenpeace’s scenario suggests that this would come at significantly lower cost than the reference scenario, as there would be less cost for the installation of renewable generation capacity compared to building new nuclear power plants. The authors estimate a total investment need of 56.3 billion USD in renewables up to 2020, as opposed to 28.8 billion in the reference scenario, whereas investment in conventional fossil and nuclear power plants would diminish from 153.6 billion USD to 40.6 billion USD (Short / Crispin 2012).

Renewables Cheaper than Nuclear

In other words, investing more in renewables comes at a cost of an extra 28 billion dollars. This cost, however, is far lower than augmenting the number of fossil and especially nuclear power plants to reach the same supply situation. The latter would cost 113 billion dollars. Thus, according to these figures, Korean nuclear energy investments would eat 4 times the money of an equal increase in renewables!

In transport, the sector with the highest emission mitigation target, there are already comparatively strict emission standards for private cars. A further decrease in emissions could be achieved through “a stronger commitment to public transportation and integrated city planning”.

From a global perspective, South Korea is on the ambitious side for emission reductions. Nevertheless, it has to be said that comprehensive data is a poor relation of international climate research on Korea. Feteke et al. failed to find studies in English that revealed any concrete, up-to-date data on the country’s potential for emissions reduction: “South Korea’s pledge is likely to be rather ambitious, although lack of data on mitigation potential makes an assessment difficult.”

With its official green growth course, which sparks some resistance within its own industrial base, South Korea is the only emerging economy that realizes how much economic potential lies behind a shift to sustainability. An export-oriented, high-tech-dominated industry should know best that in the long run, it is the far-sighted early adopter, not the anachronistic industrial player reminiscing over a constantly vanishing Taylorist era, that wins. South Korea also seems to be the only emerging country capable of a dynamic climate target adjustment:

Climate protection ranks very high in the country’s priorities, and is seen as an opportunity for economic expansion. The country has also adjusted its pledge accordingly as BAU projections have been lowered, making it unique amongst developing countries.


Quite honestly, I was stunned by the contents of this study: in an unprecedentedly complete way, it showed how the complex affair of tackling global warming can be broken down into a set of simple measures that are technically and economically feasible. However, it did not lose sight of a fundamental precondition for sustainable development: for a solution to work, it needs to be adapted to local conditions. On the one hand, there is no such thing as a one-stop, magical standard method to resolve a global issue and there never will be. On the other, the sum of individual and appropriate measures makes it indeed possible, even within the short time frame of the upcoming seven years, to make a big difference. If my summary made these concepts a tiny bit more accessible to you, I am a happy man.

Further Reading

Hanna Fekete, Niklas Höhne, Markus Hagemann, Timon Wehnert, Florian Mersmann, Marion Vieweg, Marcia Rocha, Michiel Schaeffer, William Hare (2013): Emerging economies – potentials, pledges and fair shares of greenhouse gas reduction; Umweltbundesamt, PDF download here

Article image CC BY SA 3.0, edited by Moritz Bühner, based on this Wikimedia Commons image.
BRICs and Next Eleven countries highlighted in light gray, white and turquoise. All other countries in dark green.


building sector

carbon intensity

emerging economies

energy efficiency

GHG mitigation

GHG reduction

green growth


industrial sector


South Africa

South Korea


transport sector


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