Science in Society Archive

Green Growth for Developing Nations

Developing nations can leapfrog to low carbon economies by improving energy efficiency, adopting organic agriculture, and installing affordable off-grid renewable power for the people, says United Nations agency Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

Green opportunities amid the multiple global crises

There are plenty of solutions to the current multiple global crisis in finance, climate change, and rising food prices that are available and affordable for developing nations and create green growth opportunities, says the latest Trade and Environment Review (TER) [1] released by UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development). UNCTAD is the equivalent of the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) for developing nations.

Much “clean” growth is possible in the developing world with existing technologies, given the right strategy and incentives, TER says.

Instead of belt-tightening in times of financial crisis, as conventional wisdom might dictate, the urgency of the crisis gives governments of the world’s poorest nations the chance to re-direct resources to more efficient economic growth that’s better for the environment, more socially equitable, and more promising over the long term.

TER puts emphasis on three areas of clean growth: energy efficiency, sustainable agriculture and off-grid renewable power. If done properly, these should yield savings that pay for themselves or even generate quick profits. In addition, shifting to clean growth will create jobs. But to make this happen, governments must eliminate market barriers and policies that prevent the flow of capital into these promising sectors.      

“Promoting growth in relevant sectors – including energy efficiency, sustainable agriculture and renewable energies for rural electrification – will not automatically solve the current poverty and climate imperatives. It will however, provide multiple social, economic and environmental dividends and constitute much-needed first steps towards low-carbon social and economic development,” says Dr, Supachai Panitchpakdi, Secretary-General of UNCTAD

Buyelwa Sonjica, South Africa’s Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, adds: “The good news is that it is technologically and financially possible to steer economies in that direction. Indeed, many of the attitudinal and production shifts required are in countries’ best interests, because they can save costs and yield stronger economies.”

Sustainable agriculture is especially important as agricultural production is predicted to decline in the poorest countries in Africa and Asia. As Tim Groser, New Zealand’s Minister of Trade and Associate Minister for Climate Change Issues says: “We will need to achieve the best possible global production patterns for agriculture that will meet food, development and climate needs. We have an opportunity to achieve win-win-win solutions across the trade, development and climate agendas. Seizing this opportunity requires a long-term view, coherence in the direction and substance of the relevant international frameworks, and a shared commitment from developed and developing countries alike to contribute to global action on climate change.”

Ulrich Hoffmann of UNCTAD Secretariat urges governments to use the crisis as a launch pad for steering the global economy towards a more sustainable growth pattern. 

Economic stimulus packages can be used to kick start clean growth, which are economically self-sustainable once initial investment is made. Innovative policy approaches are needed that generate synergies between creating new jobs (and associated income-generating opportunities), cost reductions resulting from more efficient material/resource and energy use, and lower environmental pressures (including abatement of greenhouse gases).

The findings from UNCTAD’s study corroborate and complement those of ISIS’ reports Green Energies - 100% Renewable by 2050 [2], and Food Futures Now: *Organic *Sustainable *Fossil Fuel Free [3]. In particular, it reinforces the economic feasibility and profitability of going green in a decentralised, distributed manner.

Improving energy efficiency gives large savings in energy cost

Buildings are the single largest consumer of energy globally, and there is much scope for improving energy efficiency and a huge market potential in both developed and developing countries. According to the much cited McKinsey report [4], global market for efficient building technologies is estimated to grow at 6 percent per annum from €87 billion in 2008 to €180 billion by 2020.

The great advantage of such efficiency improvements is that it can be implemented locally, especially within cities as part of Local Agenda 21 (see Cities and Climate [5], SiS 45). Economic returns come quickly in substantial savings on energy. A renovation of the lighting system in the University of Mexico resulted in electricity savings of 59 to 92 percent in different parts of the campus buildings. German legislation has increased building efficiency standards stepwise during the past two decades. Freiburg and other German cities have gone further than required by law. The vision for the next generation of energy efficient buildings is the “plus-energy house”, which produces more energy than it consumes.

Another example [1] involves the use of compressed natural gas in passenger cars in Brazil, where only about 13 per cent of the energy reaches the wheels. By contrast, if the gas is used to generate electricity to supply a plug-in electric vehicle, the energy efficiency is 32 percent (but see [6] The Biogas Economy Arrives (SiS 40) for a small modification of the car engine that makes natural gas more efficient than petrol).

UK company ABB Ltd demonstrated how electric motors that work at variable speeds as required - rather than at full throttle all the time - can deliver energy savings of 50 percent or more [7]. Electric motors are found in industrial fans, blowers and pumps, machine tools, household appliances, power tools and computer disc drives. “Two thirds of industry energy uses are due to motors,” says Nick Brown, ABB’s energy appraisal manager. It is the easiest and most profitable way to help meet the UK government’s Credit Reduction Commitment (CRC) Energy Efficiency Scheme mandated by the Climate Change Act of 2008 that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent of 1990 level. CRC starts in 2010 in which companies must provide information on their energy use; 5 000 ‘fully participating companies’ with baseline energy consumption of 6 000 MWh/y or more will engage in a carbon trading scheme that also awards bonuses and exact penalties according to how well they have reduced their carbon footprint.

Another readily available energy efficiency improvement is LED (light emission diode) lighting.  LED technology is constantly getting better at delivery more and better quality light (> 2000 lumens in multidie LEDs) for less than half the energy, being extraordinarily long lasting (> 50 000 h life at 70 percent lumens), and requiring little or no maintenance thereby saving both energy and maintenance costs substantially [8]. LED lightings have practically no hazardous materials such as mercury, cadmium or lead, which is a boon to end of life recycling. In addition, beautiful design features in buildings are now created with LED lighting that comes in many colours besides white. It is estimated that 20 percent of the electricity use in the UK is on lighting, ahead of heating or ventilation. Apart from substantial carbon savings due to energy efficiency, the cost savings are such that the economic payback time for a typical installation is just 1.9 years. LED lighting is especially suited to off-grid use with small voltages locally generated from wind turbines, solar panels or biogas generators.

Sustainable agriculture more profitable and saves carbon emissions

UNCTAD research has previously shown that farms which engaged in certified organic production in East Africa earned significantly more than comparable groups of farms engaged in conventional production. Between 2002 and 2007, global certified organic sales doubled to reach $46 billion, and are expected to increase further to $67 billion by 2012.

Despite the current economic crisis, demand for organic products is continuing to grow. While sales are concentrated in North America and Europe, production is global, with developing countries producing and exporting large and ever increasing shares. Africa, for instance, is home to some 20–24 per cent of the world’s certified organic farms. Exports of organic products from Uganda rose fivefold in five years, from $4.6 million in 2002/03 to $22.8 million in 2007/08.  The price premiums for organic farmers range from 30 to 200 percent.  

According to a recent report from FAO [9] (United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization), up to 5 of the 6.1 Gt of CO2e emissions from agriculture could be abated by phasing out chemical fertilizers - thereby saving CO2 emissions in the manufacture of fertilizers and reducing N2O emissions from the chemically fertilized soils - and by carbon sequestration in organically managed soils. This has been highlighted in ISIS’ earlier reports, which also dispelled the myth that organic agriculture results in reduced crop yields [3, 4]  Organic Agriculture and Localized Food & Energy Systems for Mitigating Climate Change (SiS 40). Actually, organic agriculture gives significantly greater crop yields especially in developing countries. In Europe and the United States, yields can decrease significantly during the first year of conversion from conventional to organic. However, organic crop yields tend to recover by year three, to equalize or overtake conventional crop yields. The big difference is that organic crops are much more resistant to drought, considerably out-yielding conventional crops during drought years, and recover much faster, being also more resilient.

All the evidence indicates that organically managed crops not only reduce costly and environmentally damaging input, reducing CO2 emissions and sequestering more carbon in the soil, they  are also much better able to withstand the biotic and physical stresses of climate change. Organic agriculture is a key strategy for mitigating and adapting to climate change.

Off-grid renewables available and accessible

There are concrete examples of how off-grid renewable energy provides affordable and reliable power supply to improve people’s lives, create jobs, and fuel sustainable economic growth.

Grameen Shakti (GS) is a project initiated in 1996 by the developers of Grameen Bank to provide rural people access to green energy at affordable costs [1, 10]. As a result, 220 000 homes across Bangladesh have installed photovoltaic (PV) systems. More than 8 000 PV systems are being installed a month and demand is increasing exponentially. The goal is to install 2 million PV systems in homes by 2011 and 7.5 million by 2015, which would serve half of the total rural population of Bangladesh.

In addition, GS has installed 7 000 biogas facilities that convert animal dung and organic residues into pollution-free biogas and slurry. The biogas can be used to cook food, to provide lighting and to produce electricity. The slurry serves as organic fertilizer and fish feed. The goal is to build 500 000 biogas units by 2015. GS has also distributed over 20 000 improved cooking stoves and aims to provide one million stoves by 2010, covering 35 000 villages. At least 20,000 jobs have already been created; and at least 100 000 direct jobs intended by 2015, mainly for women. Systems such as this contribute to enhanced energy security and shield the economy from escalating energy prices of conventional fuels and their price volatility.

Another example is DESI (Decentralised Energy Systems India) EmPower Partnership Programme [1], run by Dr. Hari Sharana, where the power from local renewable (biomass) energy resources is about 30 percent cheaper than grid connected electricity. That’s because large centralised power stations are capital intensive, and distribution and transmission of electricity incur large energy losses. DESI builds an entire local community of energy providers and users, including micro-enterprises. Each partnership project comprises a biomass gasification-based power plant with pure gas engine, water pumps for irrigation replacing diesel pumps, battery charging, a mini-grid with connections to each household in the village, traditional agro-processing units replacing diesel, battery-run LED (light emission diode)  lighting charged by the power plant or solar PV panels replacing kerosene, biomass processing (cutting, drying, briquetting and management), energy crops, vermiculture, and fisheries.

A typical investment portfolio is about Rs8.6 million ($185 689) per village, of which the power plant 75 kW costs Rs 4.5 million ($1 221/kW), total energy services, microenterprises and infrastructure cost Rs 3.3 million, and  project development and implementation, including coordination and travel,  building, training and a cluster centre cost Rs 0.8 million. Thus, 100 villages would cost $18.7 million for 7.5 MW. So far, three villages have been electrified in this way.

Financing for the projects was obtained from multiple sources, including equity from local partners who formed cooperatives and societies, DESI power loan and equity from promoters and external investors, awards, selling of carbon emission reductions (CERs), and other loans.

My reservation about the DESI scheme is that it is based on growing dedicated bioenergy crops to service the biomass gasification unit, which would compete with growing food; furthermore, there does not appear to be any effort to recycle wastes or to manage irrigation water sustainably. An equivalent scheme based on anaerobic digestion of livestock, human and crops wastes combined with water harvesting and other renewable energy installations would be much more sustainable [3, 4] (see also [11] How to Beat Climate Change & Be Food and Energy Rich - Dream Farm 2 (ISIS Report).

Obviously, what’s needed is for governments to redirect their energy subsidies from fossil fuels to green energies. Energy-related emissions currently account for 61 percent of all GHG emissions. The power sector alone is responsible for 41 per cent of total CO2 emissions in 2006, largely through the combustion of fossil fuels to generate electricity.

China a global leader in wind energy

Dong Wu of the UNCTAD secretariat reports that China has emerged as a global leader in wind energy [1], more than doubling its overall capacity every year since 2006. In 2008, China installed 6 GW, bringing its cumulative installed capacity to more than 12 GW and set to rise to 20 GW by 2010. This will make China the second largest producer of wind energy in the world after the United States, overtaking Germany and Spain.

China is projected to reach 30 GW installed capacity by 2011, well ahead of the target year 2020 originally set by the Chinese Government. Installed capacity is only half of China’s success story; the other half is the emergence of a competitive local industry. Domestic manufacturers accounted for 70 per cent of newly installed capacity in 2008, up from 30 per cent in 2004. Goldwind and Sinovel, China’s leading turbine manufacturers, already rank among the world’s top 10 manufacturers; Dongfang, Windey and several other Chinese companies are coming up.

China’s wind generator industry has made significant progress in developing and building up a domestic supply chain that links turbine manufacturers, component suppliers and technology services. As a result, China is poised to become a major player in the global wind power equipment market within the next few years.

Government policies have played a decisive role in the rapid development of the country’s wind energy sector. China’s Renewable Energy Law, which came into effect in 2006, set targets and provided special funds and financial incentives to the renewables sector to meet those targets. The goal was to establish a “basic system of renewable energy technologies and industry” by the year 2010 as a foundation for the development of “relatively complete”, large-scale domestic manufacturing capabilities, primarily based on China’s own intellectual property rights.

A government financial incentive package aimed at promoting domestic wind power equipment manufacturers offers 600 RMB per kW for each of the first 50 turbines of over 1MW produced, if they have been tested and certified by the Chinese authorities, put into operation and connected to the grid.

Initially, Chinese turbine producers acquired licenses from foreign companies to reproduce existing turbine design. But the Chinese manufacturers soon found that foreign firms were licensing only out-of-date turbines so as not to undermine their competitive advantage. In response, the major Chinese turbine manufacturers shifted away from licensing to commissioning original constructions from international design and consulting firms. This not only cost less than licensing fees, but also allows the Chinese manufacturers to own the intellectual property rights to the design. The strategy has allowed even newcomers to leapfrog years of wind technology development, to produce relatively advanced, high-capacity machines, and compete with the established and more experienced domestic enterprises.

A case in point is Dongfang’s cooperation agreement with the Finnish company, The Switch, from early 2008. Under the agreement, The Switch will supply Dongfang with the production concept and technology for its innovative “permanent magnet generator” package, which, according to experts, represents the technology of choice for next-generation wind power generators, as they offer a platform of highly integrated components built to last and require very little maintenance.

Another way to foster research and development in a particular technology area is to concentrate technology firms, suppliers, and ancillary services in technology clusters like a dedicated industrial park. This has happened in the Chinese wind energy sector. At present, there are at least three major local clusters, all of which are located in special economic development zones in large cities in the north-east: Tianjin, Baoding and Shenyang.

Article first published 06/04/10


  1. Trade and Environment Review 2009/2010, Promoting poles of clean growth to foster the transition to a more sustainable economy, United Nations, Geneva, 2010.
  2. Ho MW, Cherry B, Burcher S and Saunders PT. Green Energies, 100% Renewables by 2050, ISIS/TWN, London/Penang, 2009,
  3. Ho MW. Burcher S, Li LC, et cl. Food Futures Now, Organic, Sustainable, Fossil Fuel Free, , ISIS/TWN, London/Penang, 2008,
  4. Pathways to a Low Carbon Economy, McKinsey&Company, 2009.
  5. Brenke S. Cities and climate, an international challenge and development perspective. Science in Society 45, 12-14, 2010.
  6. Ho MW. The biogas economy arrives. Science in Society 40, 16-18, 2008.
  7. How variable speed drives and motors can help you meet your CRC targets, Masterclass 2, Sustainable Development, Putting sustainability into practice, Public Service Events, 18 February 2010,
  8. LEDs – are they the future of light? Masterclass 1, Sustainable Development, Putting sustainability into practice, Public Service Events, 18 February 2010,
  9. Low Greenhouse Gas Agriculture, Mitigation and Adaptation Potential of sustainable Farming Systems, FAO, Rome, 2009.
  10. Grameen Shakti, Bangladesh, Rapid growing solar installer also provide clean cooking.
  11. Ho MW. How to beat climate change and be food and fuel rich – Dream Farm 2. ISIS Report, 10 July 2007,

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