Leapfrogging – Myth or Reality? Can economic growth really be decoupled from increased carbon emissions in Least Developed Countries? Ethiopia’s Story

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Steve BainesSteve Baines is a 2016 IDD MSc Masters Graduate in International Development (Environment, Sustainability & Politics). He came to this after a career in UK affordable housing culminating as National Director of a FTSE250 company. Steve has deep interests in worldwide development and climate change mitigation and adaptation. On a local level, he has developed links with all major faith groups in Birmingham through “Footsteps – Birmingham Faiths for a Low-carbon future” and is part of a ground breaking initiative to develop environmental religious and civic leadership in the City. His MSc dissertation focused on whether economic growth can ever be truly “green”.

These are definitely not the research findings I expected to be presenting! The data in front of me has challenged me and my long held assumptions. Climate negotiations through the years show us one thing very clearly – that Least Developed Countries’ demand the right to develop their own economies and build their own prosperity for their people. They are not prepared to accept underdevelopment under the guise of carbon responsibility. The question is whether Least Developed Countries can deliver these improved living standards for their citizens without causing the environmental damage historically inflicted through growth in the West…or to put it another way …can LDCs “leapfrog” dirty technology and move straight to green solutions? Does prosperity always automatically come with a carbon price tag? Evidence of any form of “absolute” decoupling (where growth goes up and emissions go down) is very thin on the ground. “History provides little support for the plausibility of decoupling” (Jackson 2011 p75). Well, we now have early, tentative evidence that such “decoupling” is indeed possible in practice. This is Ethiopia’s story.

Ethiopia’s Commitment

We all think we know Ethiopia – the familiar headlines – famine, drought, civil unrest, refugees. But, think again; in 2010 Prime Minister Meles Zenawi committed Ethiopia to two amazing joint goals:

To become a Middle Income nation by 2025 and to do this by 2030 without a single additional gram of Greenhouse Gas emissions (GHGs) from a 2010 level.

These commitments were set out in Ethiopia’s Climate Resilient Green Economy (CRGE) Strategy 2010. The context is not promising to say the least. One third of Ethiopia’s people currently live on less than $1.25 a day. So to put this promise into context, it commits Ethiopia to raising real incomes per person 3.3 times over 15 years (measured by Gross National Income per capita). Also by the end of this target period there will be over half as many people again in the country. Surely this is madness – I thought as I flew into Addis Ababa in July 2016.

World Bank data

Using historical World Bank statistics of Population, Gross National Income (GNI) and GHG emissions, the study set out to calculate how much more efficient technology in Ethiopia would have to be to achieve zero GHG emissions whilst the country reaches middle income status by 2030. The calculation was made using IPAT – a methodology that has achieved significant acceptance and evaluates changes in the relationships between four factors – Impact (GHG emissions), Population, Affluence and Technology. The IPAT equation in this study is used to calculate the degree of “Technological efficiency improvements” required to meet CRGE targets. The equation is:

Technology = Impact / (Population x Affluence)

 T = I / ( P x A )

The Results

Using WB figures on Population growth (P) and Ethiopian commitments to Middle Income status (A) and carbon neutrality (I) it is possible to calculate that “Technology” in Ethiopia needs to become more carbon-efficient by a factor of over 4.5 times (2010- 2030) if CRGE goals are to be met. The study compared this level of Technological (leapfrogging) carbon efficiency gains to that achieved by other nations at times of strong economic growth. Using the same methodology, between 1999 and 2012 none of the 6 other countries surveyed (2 OECD countries, 2 BRICS countries and 2 other developing countries) were able to rise to this challenge.

So has Ethiopia got a track record of achievement to back up its ambitious commitments? Using the World Bank datasets I looked back at Ethiopia’s recent performance and also I talked to key players in Government and civil society.

Here are the killer figures – between 1999 and 2012:

  • Population increased by 43%
  • national affluence (GNI) increased by 242%
  • but GHG emissions actually decreased over this time by around 15%. Per capita emissions went down by over 40%.

Source: WB Database of World Development Indicators (WB 2016; http://data.worldbank.org)

These results blew me away. They demonstrate that Ethiopia has the track record to meet their twin targets if they can just stay on the same trajectory.

How has Ethiopia achieved this? The study looked in depth at the capacity of Ethiopia to benefit from climate finance and then focused in on some landmark case studies in the delivery of actual investment into “green growth” initiatives – the rollout of a national programme of “Eco Industrial Parks”, securing international private investment in construction of a major geothermal plant and ongoing efforts to enhance the take-up of “New Improved Cook Stoves” across the country.


So where has all of this got us? This may be actually a small, tentative, fragile message of hope. …potentially a symbol. Do we believe World Bank figures? If so, Ethiopia has achieved absolute decoupling of GHG emissions from economic growth. However, a critical question needs to be asked: how have the benefits of this green economic growth been distributed among people? If growth can indeed be green and the results of growth be equitably shared to relieve poverty, then we really have a development model which is worth replicating. “Win-win” solutions for the planet and people.

Perhaps it will prove harder to sustain once low-hanging fruit and easy wins have been banked….or just possibly Ethiopia has forged a new route for sustainable development – a model for other LDCs to follow.

The study was undertaken in partnership with Oxfam UK, the Environment & Climate Research Centre in Addis Ababa, UNDP Ethiopia office and IDD University of Birmingham. I am indebted to them all.

For more information/detail please follow the link to a YouTube talk by the author (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zt_mgW02LIQ&t=93s) or contact Steve on stephen_baines@sky.com.


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