China and Climate Change

Recently, a friend stated that any actions the U.S. takes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are inconsequential since China is the world’s main contributor to greenhouse gases.

What’s right or wrong about his statement?

He is correct that China, with its 1,364 million people, emits more greenhouse gases (ranked #1 in the word for  its amount of carbon emissions) than does the United States (ranked #2), with 319 people (population figures from Tony Juniper, What’s Really Happening to Our Planet?, p. 17). China recently supplanted the United States for the “honor” of being the number one greenhouse-gas polluter. The top seven emitters of carbon dioxide (in millions of tons of CO2) for 2011 were China—11,300; USA—6,780; European Union—4,250; India—2,500; Russia 2,430; Indonesia—2,200; and Brazil 1,540. (Juniper, 142-143).

My friend is also correct that China’s influence will significantly affect the world’s future. In his recently published book, The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells relates that “the planet’s future will be determined in large part by the arc of growth in the developing world—that’s where most of the people are, in China and India and, increasingly, sub-Saharan Africa” (33).

Wallace-Wells emphasizes, though, that “this is no absolution for the West, where the average citizen produces many times more emissions than almost anyone in Asia, just out of habit” (33). He states that “it isn’t necessary for Westerners to adopt the lifestyle of the global poor. Seventy percent of the energy produced by the planet, it’s estimated, is lost as waste heat. If the average American were confined to the carbon footprint of her European counterpart, U.S. carbon emissions would fall by more than half. If the world’s richest 10 percent were limited to that same footprint, global emissions would fall by a third” (33).

He points out that the United States and Europe have flattened out their carbon emissions trajectories, and that those trajectories likely will begin declining soon [addendum: unfortunately, the trajectory of the United States starting going up again in 2018]. It is important to realize that United States and Europe now outsource much of their carbon emissions to China, since “a large slice of China’s emissions is produced manufacturing goods to be consumed by Americans and Europeans” (194).

Regarding China’s influence on the world’s future greenhouse gas emissions, Wallace-Wells notes that China “has positioned itself as a major provider, in some cases the major provider, of the infrastructure of industry, energy, and transportation in much of the developing world” (195). Consequently, China will significantly influence the climate policy of many nations. How fast China greens its industry (195), especially given “the evacuation of American leadership on climate change” (45), will determine—along with the “courses taken by India, the rest of South Asia, Nigeria and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. . . the climate shape of the twenty-first century” (195).

That said about China, I feel my friend is incorrect that bold action and leadership now by the United States (which is the world’s #2 greenhouse gas polluter) to remake our fossil fuel consumption economy into a renewable fuels economy—as is being championed by many cities, states, corporations, politicians, and individuals—cannot, in a big way, influence Americans and the rest of the world . . . including China.

— Michael Maddox

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