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Developing countries hold the key to reaching Net Zero Emissions


Staff member
Nov 29, 2023
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A guest post by my scenario team colleagues Thomas Akkerhuis and Georgios Bonias

In a few days, leaders from the world’s largest economies will gather in India for the 2023 G20 summit. The G20 Presidency has included Green Development as one of the main themes of the summit with a specific mention on ‘ensuring just energy transitions for developing countries’. At the same time, given the volatility and uncertainty in energy markets, many countries are looking to secure their own energy sources, with fossil fuel extraction as part of plan. Looking forwards, how might the emerging and least developed parts of the global economy respond to the call for green development, net-zero emissions and much lower use of fossil fuels? Looking back, it’s important not to forget that today’s developed economies largely sprang to life on the back of coal, then oil, and later naturl gas, with no CO2 emission constraints to consider.

A few months ago, Shell published The Energy Security Scenarios, which explore two different pathways for the energy transition, driven by the global shift towards a security mindset.

  • Sky 2050 – a very rapid transition where global climate security overcomes shorter-term national concerns.
  • Archipelagos – where national security concerns create ongoing headwinds in an otherwise rapid transition.

To help explore how different countries might navigate through the transition, four different archetypes were identified, with nations behaving in similar ways when they share similar vulnerabilities to energy supply disruption and energy price volatility. In both scenarios, the security mindset leads to aggressively competitive, rather than co-operative, decarbonisation.

The archetypes are:

  • Green Dream – which can be observed in the European Union. The EU’s wealth enables it to deal with energy price volatility, but its advanced economies and depleted oil and gas resources make it highly vulnerable to energy supply failures. These countries seek security by driving hard to end the use of fossil fuels.
  • Innovation Wins – which can be seen in countries like the USA and major energy resource holders like the United Arab Emirates. These countries are often self-sufficient in energy so are not vulnerable to supply failures, but their political systems are exposed to swings in the energy price. These countries do not feel so threatened in the short term, but invest heavily in innovation and infrastructure as longer-term solutions to their energy needs and the needs of their energy customers.
  • Great Wall of Change – which is mainly relevant to China. China is insulated from both supply and price concerns by several factors: the size of its economy, its large coal reserves, and the scale of the investments it is making in its own energy supply and infrastructure. China takes a cautious approach, aware of the need to move away from coal – by far the most emissions-intensive fossil fuel – and carefully monitoring global energy market developments. It looks to use its manufacturing strength to grow its position as a global low-carbon energy powerhouse.
  • Surfers – which subdivides into Emergent Surfers, like India and Brazil, and Rising Surfers being the world’s least developed economies. The latter includes most countries from the African continent, and they are more focused on establishing the basic foundations for development, such as infrastructure. Surfers countries do not produce significant amounts of energy and so they are vulnerable to both energy supply disruption and price swings. Emergent Surfers quickly adopt new technologies while Rising Surfers focus more on access to energy. Surfers seek out partnerships and try to ride the waves of opportunity created by other archetype groups.

We have used the archetypes to explore how people, wealth and energy are distributed. The Green Dream and Innovation Wins archetypes currently account for 23% of the global population but almost 60% of global energy demand and 63% of the global GDP. On the other hand, Surfers countries make up more than half of the world population but only about a third of the global energy demand and GDP.


The skewness of GDP distribution, favouring Innovation Wins and Green Dream, comes at a cost, being the large contribution to global anthropogenic CO2 emissions that these countries have made. Based on our analysis of data from 1850 onwards, the cumulative CO2 emissions for countries in these archetypes are more than 600 tonnes per current inhabitant, while for the Great Wall of Change archetype they are about 140 tonnes. For Emergent Surfers countries the number is just above 100 tonnes of CO2 and for Rising Surfers around 30 tonnes.

The share of the different archetypes in annual CO2 emissions has been going through significant changes in recent decades, reflecting the changing dynamics in the global economy. In practice, CO2 shares are even more skewed. For example, China’s emissions are partially due to product demand in Innovation Wins and Green Dream. The same is true for land use change emissions, where Brazilian deforestation is partially a result of global food demand.


Given that countries in the Great Wall of Change and particularly in the Surfers archetypes are expected to have strong economic growth in the coming years and decades, we looked at the CO2 profiles that these countries will need to have, according to the Sky 2050 scenario, in order for the world to be at NZE by 2050. Historical data for all archetypes are shown in grey lines and the possible future pathways, based on the Sky 2050 scenario analysis, are shown in colour.


The key message coming from this analysis is that developing countries will need to achieve their projected economic growth following pathways of much lower CO2 emissions than today’s developed countries did over the last 100 years. If countries in the Great Wall of Change and Surfers archetypes were to follow similar CO2 emissions pathways as the Green Dream and Innovation Wins countries when reaching similar levels of GDP/capita, then global CO2 emissions at 2050 would be close to 80 Gt per year, which is double of today’s levels, instead of NZE as is required to stop global warming. Much lower CO2 pathways can be achieved in three ways:

  1. Use fewer energy services compared to developed economies at a similar level of income.
  2. Use energy services that consume less energy (higher efficiency).
  3. Use energy services that make use of cleaner energy (lower fossil fuel share)

The first is not a viable option and therefore we do not make use of it. However, some economies may appear to follow this pathway, but in reality a modal shift is taking place. For example, shared ownership of vehicles has never been established at scale in the USA or EU, but it could emerge in parts of Africa. However, this doesn’t mean that people travel less. Clean electricity will address both the second and third points: electrified energy services are often much more energy efficient, and when the electricity is clean, that brings the additional benefit of emissions reduction. For the non-electrified parts of the energy system, low life-cycle emission hydrocarbons (such as biofuels) and hydrogen can still address the third point.

So what happens in the two scenarios?

Sky 2050 must, by necessity, embrace an energy system leapfrog for developing counties simply to reach net-zero globally by 2050. But despite national security interests prevailing in Archipelagos, broadly the same trend is followed. For the Rising Surfers group in Archipelagos, per capita fossil fuel use never gets to the levels seen in any of the other archetypes due to the growing availability and falling cost of alternative energy technologies. For example, as Rising Surfers develop in Archipelagos:

  • Coal never dominates the electricity sector as it has in most other developed regions. This is further supported by the high potential for solar energy production that many countries in the Rising Surfers group have.

  • The use of hydrocarbon fuels for mobility in Rising Surfers will peak far below the Green Dream / Innovation Wins levels.

  • The buildings sector in Rising Surfers will switch directly from traditional biomass to clean electricity – skipping phases of coal-fired power and gas-fired boilers.

In theory, the transition is possible given the progress in technology and the lower carbon energy options which are becoming available nowadays. Rising Surfers are well positioned in some important ways. For example, Africa, having less than 30% of the global land area, has an estimated 58% of the global resource potential for solar energy. This is a useful contrast with Innovations Wins and Green Dream who have built their wealth on traditional sources of energy. In Sky 2050, by 2100, almost 30% of global direct air capture capacity is located in these countries, potentially generating huge revenue through removals trade under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. From an energy demand perspective, their climate will eliminate an important portion of heating demand in buildings sectors which is often provided by direct combustion of natural gas. By contrast, air cooling is already an electricity based energy service. Efficiency will grow due to urbanization trends, with over 80% of the Rising Surfers’ population living in cities in the second half of the century (vs. less than half today).

But here will also be barriers. Although some green technologies are cheaper than their fossil fuel counterparts, many are not, or require significant upfront investment. Building an electricity grid that can handle increasing electrification and the intermittency of solar will be a challenge. It will be critical and fair to have mechanisms through which developing countries can be supported in this alternative pathway and the new energy technologies made widely available as quickly as possible. This will be one of the many challenges faced by the G20 when they meet in India. The world’s ambition to reach net zero emissions by 2050 will depend on it.

Note: Shell Scenarios are not predictions or expectations of what will happen, or what will probably happen. They are not expressions of Shell’s strategy, and they are not Shell’s business plan; they are one of the many inputs used by Shell to stretch thinking whilst making decisions. Read more in the Definitions and Cautionary note. Scenarios are informed by data, constructed using models and contain insights from leading experts in the relevant fields. Ultimately, for all readers, scenarios are intended as an aid to making better decisions. They stretch minds, broaden horizons and explore assumptions.
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