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Skyscrapers against a blue sky

Developed economies have the luxury of being able to invest in improving production efficiency, decarbonising energy systems, and optimising economic structures, which has seen some achieve peak emissions without harming their economies.

But for developing countries, the story is different.

They have limited resources or budget to deploy low-carbon technologies or still need the fossil fuel-based system to boost their economy. Lack of capital makes it difficult for these countries to exploit the opportunities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. They remain trapped in a vicious cycle in which their emissions are tied to their ability to grow their economies.

We know developed countries will have their place at the table, as they always do, and there must be a strong focus on reducing consumption in these economies. But what makes COP28 a potential game-changer is that emerging countries too will have their voices heard – and we must listen.

Dr Yuli Shan, Associate Professor in Sustainable Transitions

At COP28, which is branded as ‘the most inclusive COP ever’, the world has an opportunity to finally bring emerging economies into the conversation.

59 major emerging economies now dominate the growth of global emissions and were responsible for ~39% of the world’s emission increase between 2010 and 2018. Without making their economies more sustainable or tackling production together with consumption, these countries will continue to increase carbon emissions.

At COP28, it is critical to have discussions around finance and enablers to support less developed but fast-growing emerging countries.

Some of the greatest opportunities lie in upgrading key industrial infrastructure in hard-to-abate sectors.

For example, the oil refining industry, the world's top emitting sector, will see a 10% decrement in emissions from 2020 to 2030 if it can improve refinery efficiency and upgrade heavy oil processing technology.

Similarly, leveraging solutions such as thermal efficiency, and carbon capture and storage, as well as supplementary cementitious materials can help the cement industry, which is responsible for 5%-8% of global annual anthropogenic CO2, to significantly slash its emissions. Decarbonising the cement industry alone could reduce the Global South countries’ annual emissions by 65% by 2050 and their cumulative emissions by 48% compared to 2020.

Further, my simulations on the key super-emitting sectors in Chinese cities show that up to 31% of the country’s emissions can be reduced if it updates a disproportionately small fraction of existing infrastructure with the most advanced technologies.

One interesting but alarming fact is that substantial emissions reductions in some western EU countries have only been achieved because they have outsourced emitting industries to less developed economies, including their neighbours in Eastern Europe. This approach may end up causing emission growth in those emerging countries, and even higher global emissions.

A two-way street

While COP28 is an opportunity to boost support for developing countries, it is also a chance for developed countries to reflect on themselves.

I have mentioned the importance of addressing production methods. But just as important are human behaviour changes, sociotechnical transitions, and fiscal instruments like carbon pricing, as emphasised by the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report.

My ongoing research highlights the substantial unexplored potential of adopting low-carbon lifestyle changes, which could reduce global emissions by almost 20%.

Dietary emissions from the global food system, which contribute to 30% of anthropogenic emissions, would decrease by 17% (1.94 Gt) if the global could adopt the EAT-Lancet planetary health diet.

These are huge opportunities, and particularly relevant to developed countries.

After all, while developing countries may emit hundreds of tons of CO2 annually from production, their per-capita carbon footprints are miniscule compared developed countries.

It is also worth remembering that the richest 10% of the world’s population is responsible for nearly half of global consumption-related emissions, while the poorest 50% contribute only around 10%.

This chasmic imbalance demonstrates the need for a holistic approach at COP28.

We know developed countries will have their place at the table, as they always do, and there must be a strong focus on reducing consumption in these economies.

But what makes COP28 a potential game-changer is that emerging countries too will have their voices heard – and we must listen.