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Seeing China's Climate Emissions Clearly
Alex Steffen, 21 Apr 08
Article Photo

One of the frequently repeated claims in American politics -- used often by those advocating the impossibility of effective action on climate change -- is that China has "caught up" on greenhouse gas emissions, thus rendering useless any steps we might take ourselves.

Even smart, well-intentioned people repeat this claim without much critical distance. But it's worth unpacking all this

1) Generally, what's meant is that China's direct emissions as a nation have caught up to those of the United States. This is possibly true, though the figures used to make that claim skip a bunch of important factors, like meat production and air travel, that may well tip the scales back to the U.S. having the world's largest national share of direct emissions.

2) Even assuming that China is now the world's largest emitter, a large percentage of China's industrial emissions come from goods manufactured for sale in the U.S., Japan, Europe and other developed nations. Often, the good involved are the kinds that are heavily polluting and were formerly made in their countries of use. Effectively, we're offshoring the emissions used to make these goods.

3) In addition, we need to acknowledge historical carbon whenever we discuss this issue. Almost a third of all the greenhouse gasses currently in the atmosphere are the direct result of our rise to prosperity. China has a very long way to go before it bears the same moral burden that we do for climate change.

4) Nor are individual Chinese nearly as climate-hostile as the average American, and when it comes to climate negotiations, per capita emissions are everything. In tackling climate change, an equitable burden needs to be placed on each persons shoulders, with those who have more doing more, and those who are still poor being allowed the opportunity for development. This is both fair, and politically necessary, and measured by personal impacts, average Chinese citizens are still eco-saints compared to upper-middle class Americans.

We all want China to choose a different path than the one it's on: even the Chinese want this. But the only way China is going to come to the international negotiating table and bargain in earnest is if we here acknowledge our greater responsibility and actively pursue a bright green model of prosperity ourselves -- both to reduce our own impact and to create the innovation needed for the rest of the world to adopt that model.

Waving our hands in the air that China has "caught up" and thus no matter what we do, we're screwed, is essentially just another way to argue for business as usual, and we're done with business as usual.

Just sayin'.

(Photo credit: Edward Burtynsky, Manufacturing #16, from the China series. Used with permission.)

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Hard to disagree that "historical carbon" needs to be brought to the forefront of international discussions more often and more consistently. The effects of climate change we will experience regardless of global emissions controls enacted this century will be mostly attributable to that burden of historical carbon. And someday the responsibility will be apportioned and accountability demanded.

Posted by: Ted on 21 Apr 08

Alex, you're exactly right. While China faces immense environmental challenges, it's incorrect to make them a climate scapegoat for the rest of us.

One promising factor you didn't cover is the work that Chinese students are doing to take on climate change. Some campuses are beginning to do carbon audits, students are hosting conferences to learn more about the issue, and this summer thousands of students will take place in a "Green Long March" to raise awareness about sustainability.

Students are also using new media to document the challenges and solutions they are encountering. Check out this post for more info:

Posted by: Jamie, on 21 Apr 08

Great post Alex -- if you want up-to-date reliable information on what's happening to China's environment, and if you want to talk to your Chinese counterparts on the world's only fully bilingual environmental website, then log on to , where you can have your comments translated into Chinese and find out what's really going on. Sam

Posted by: Sam on 22 Apr 08

Totally agree. Historical carbon must be taken into consideration, and per capita emissions are the only reasonable and fair way to compare current emissions. It's also annoying to hear folks slam China as if the Chinese *want* to pollute and care about the earth less than people in the U.S.

Posted by: Kent Ragen on 22 Apr 08

The historical carbon output is forgivable. The West was in the dark on its effects when it made its progress based on carbon output.
It is the example it set that is fatal. China an India know exactly what they want: they want to be Americans (of course they assume our lives are as in the soaps: nobody works, everybody is rich; and of course, that's just a starting point: they want more, and then more more).
Neither descending to a frugal lifestyle in the West, nor ascending to an affluent one in the East, is conceivable. The conversions are too drastic. In the West, it is political suicide to even propose any real energy restrictions. In the East, the material basis for its aspired affluence is simply lacking. China already imports half its oil, still it consumes 5 times less of it per capita. And it's 4 times more populous!
Worldwide disaster is upon us; it's happening in front of our eyes (people are dying, unable to afford food)!

Posted by: Willy Sierens on 23 Apr 08

On target Alex. Another way to phrase it is that it takes 1.3 billion Chinese to match the carbon footprint of .3 billion (i.e. 300 million) people in the U.S.

Posted by: Tavita on 23 Apr 08

Yes we are in a sense "offshoring the emissions" but that will continue to happen as long as China has not the costly environmental standards placed on their industry as we in the U.S. It is not only cheap labor that moves manufacturing jobs overseas but also the cheap overhead of plants that are not required to adhere to strict environmental standards. Unfortunately as long as we and the rest of the world wants inexpensive goods it will be hard to stop this trend.

Posted by: Arnie Teppo on 25 Apr 08

Yes we are in a sense "offshoring the emissions" but that will continue to happen as long as China has not the costly environmental standards placed on their industry as we in the U.S. It is not only cheap labor that moves manufacturing jobs overseas but also the cheap overhead of plants that are not required to adhere to strict environmental standards. Unfortunately as long as we and the rest of the world wants inexpensive goods it will be hard to stop this trend.

Posted by: Arnie Teppo on 25 Apr 08

Not sure how useful it is as a contribution to the thread here, but have you heard this news?

It's enough to make me think it won't be _long_ before China catches up with the US in terms of levels of _current_ emissions. But as you say, Alex, that's hardly the issue, and China seems to be taking more steps more quickly to a greener future overall.

I enjoy reading your posts. Dreamers and visionaries are just what we need :)

Posted by: Trevor, UK on 27 Apr 08

It's true that many of China's emissions are, in a sense, "on behalf" of Western countries. Nonetheless, the Chinese are getting the benefit of these, in the form of the West paying for these goods, and the Chinese themselves improving their own lifestyle.

In 2006, China's GDP was by fraction,
Private consumption 36.4%
Government consumption 13.7%
Gross fixed investment 40.9%
Exports of goods/services 39.7%
Imports of goods/services -31.9%

Thus, we see that their economy was 7.8% devoted to providing the West with the goods it wants - at most 7.8%, since of course they export to non-Western countries.

By comparison, 91% was for China itself. China is using the money we give them to build roads, hydroelectric generation, coal-fired generation, nuclear power plants, hospitals, schools, mobile phone networks, TVs, SUVs and steaks for middle-class Chinese, and so on.

Now, unless we suppose that the goods China produces for export are somehow more carbon-intensive than those they produce for domestic use, we can see that at most 7.8% of China's emissions can be blamed on Western consumption.

Basically, China is quite capable of creating enormous amounts of pollution even without the West.

Being Australian, I'm also not comfortable with the argument, "oh but we're doing it for you, if not for our exports we'd be totally green!" because that's the argument my own country makes when people point out our enormous per capita emissions - we blame our mining exports.

The "historical emissions" and "per capita" arguments remain very much valid, of course.

However, I'd note that China, as a Third World country, it's hard to talk about averages in emissions. Talking about "average" Chinese emissions means somehow trying to average out the peasant in the rice field, whose only emissions are the rice hoed back into the rice paddies, and an assistant manager of a toothbrush factory living in airconditioned comfort all day and night, tooling around in his SUV, and flying to Japan monthly to play golf and negotiate sales.

So when we talk about "average" Chinese emissions, this average Chinese person doesn't really exist. It's just high emisssions, or low. Like most Third World countries, China has a big rich-poor gap; and a rich-poor gap is also an emissions gap.

That's something to bear in mind when bringing up the Chinese as a comparative example. Suppose the West aspired to achieve Chinese levels of per capita emissions - does that mean we should have huge rich-poor gap, too? I presume not. So we need to find another way. We need to find that "average" that China itself hasn't found.

Posted by: Kiashu on 27 Apr 08

It's a lively debate.

Talk of per-capita or 'historic' emissions is at high noon, absolutely pointless. 'Australia, one of the highest per capita, blar, emissions blar blar' is a meaningless statement. Ditto on Canada and most western social democracies too. Australia is responsible for 1.2% of annual co2 emissions - period.

The imperial powers of the US and China are responsible for over 40%. Let us face the fact that China has become another US; in more ways then one.

Posted by: Nicholas on 27 Apr 08

this is an informative and useful perspective. I learned something today by reading this, thank you.

Posted by: Jessica on 28 Apr 08



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