As part of the annual APEC Summit in Bali, Indonesia this week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke about the need for a clean energy future in the Pacific. (He also played down concern over the government shutdown, which prevented Obama’s attendance.) After touting the region’s economic dynamism, Kerry warned that a warming climate, if not addressed, would present dire challenges to the region:

“I will just tell you, after 29 years of following this, that the extreme weather around the world—the flooding, the fires, the drought, the intense storms—are nothing compared to what will come if we don’t act. The reduction in some of our fisheries, the melt of ice, the rise of sea level, the Pacific islands that are threatened, all of this will present us with refugees such as we have never seen before, and with food shortages that may boggle the mind.”

Kerry went on to highlight how the widespread adoption of cleaner energy, combined with energy efficiency and the curtailing of market-distorting subsidies, could allow Pacific countries to expand economic growth and deliver electricity to their citizens.

He is right to underline how important it is to get clean energy right in Asia. While the United States and the European Union still have a lot of work to do in greening their own economies, when it comes to carbon dioxide output, the real work to be done is in the developing world: the combined emissions of China and India are double that of the United States, according to World Bank data. As Kerry notes in his speech, the Asia-Pacific region is home to half of the world’s gross domestic product, a ratio only expected to rise in coming years. With it will also come a rise in emissions.

As a 2013 United Nations Development Programme report makes clear, there is a great deal of latent electrical demand buried within that projected growth trajectory, as 800 million people in the Asia-Pacific region currently lack access to electricity. Both China and India have prioritized the modernization of their economies, and consistent electricity supply will be an important benchmark in that effort.

Resolving this level of energy poverty, however, is a daunting challenge, especially if one is prioritizing the generation of environmentally sustainable electricity. For countries like India and China, coal is a strategic asset (both countries share the stage for top coal reserves with Russia and the United States). Also, while many in the West picture “green energy” as wind and solar, for the developing world, an important part of the portfolio is nuclear power, which, despite its high capital costs, is one of the only sources that can compete, in the short term, with coal generation for low energy intermittency.

These realities suggest if the United States is to fully exploit the opportunities identified in Kerry’s speech, it needs to dramatically step up its effort in constructing a strategy for engaging with the developing world on its energy needs—without over-promising on what renewables or energy efficiency can deliver on their own.

In many cases, governance issues deserve as much attention as curtailing wasteful energy subsidies. The State Department’s Energy Governance and Capacity Initiative is a good start in this respect, and its focus on sharing best-practices should be properly supported and expanded.

Additionally, even in an era of budget fights and austerity, the developed world may need to face the reality that it should be more generous with financing and technology transfer for the developing world. Plans like REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation), where developed nations pay developing nations a fixed price for protecting their forests, deserve wider support and expansion of financing.

Secretary Kerry’s words calling for greater action on climate change are a good sign. Let’s hope they are accompanied by recognition that the developing world is currently behind the curve on clean energy and needs effective partnerships with developed nations to chart a mutually beneficial course.


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