Climate change

Burden of wealth

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 July, 2011, 12:00am

China has overtaken the United States to become the largest source of greenhouse gases, the pollution that causes climate change. This has increased pressure on China to do more to combat the problem. But is this pressure justified? Does China really have responsibility for climate change?

The answer depends on a number of factors. One is history. On a practical level, we cannot say that China is as responsible for past emissions of greenhouse gases as the countries of the West. They began polluting the atmosphere in earnest from the early decades of the industrial revolution. The material benefits of that revolution largely passed China by until quite recently. In short, until the latter part of the 20th century, China was too economically under- developed to have a large impact on the earth's climate, at least relative to major industrialised countries.

However, if we think in terms of recent decades - from the late 1970s, when China opened to the world and its economy took off - the question of responsibility for climate change takes on a new dimension. This is because, over the last quarter of a century, China's greenhouse gas pollution has increased enormously, and in recent years it has contributed more to climate change than any other country.

Some will argue, as the central government does, that China is not morally responsible for climate change because its per capita emissions have been low historically. That said, China's per capita emissions now exceed the global average, and its greenhouse gas pollution today will affect the environment in profound ways in the future. Even if China lacks the same moral responsibility for climate change as richer countries, we cannot deny that pollution from within China is now a major part of the problem.

When we think more about the future, China's responsibility grows in importance. Even if we agree that China's responsibility for climate change today is quite low, it will be hard to reach the same conclusion in the future. This is especially true because the central government has been aware of the consequences of the country's economic growth on the earth's climate as that growth has taken off. This compares to governments in the West, which became locked into polluting infrastructure well before the world became aware of climate change. Fundamentally, arguments that the central government uses to attribute responsibility for climate change to the West, particularly arguments based on the West's historical pollution, will be used against China by future generations.

Another way of looking at China's responsibility for climate change is to consider its capacity. When China was a poor country, we would have been hard pressed to blame it for future climate change. If poor people pollute to survive, it is not their fault.

However, China's ability to develop in environmentally sustainable ways has grown considerably in recent decades. Indeed, the government is adopting many pro-environment policies, but not out of responsibility. Meanwhile, China's greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise dramatically.

The central government likes to attribute much of this pollution to exports - to the demand for material products produced in China and shipped to the West. This argument ignores the reality that many millions of Chinese have benefited from those exports, and that more than a few Chinese have grown rich on them.

Furthermore, demand for products is growing rapidly within China as the country's expanding middle class consumes in ways reminiscent of the boom times in America after the second world war. Consequently, the argument that much of China's greenhouse gases can be attributed to the West will become less convincing with time.

Yet another way of thinking about China's responsibility for climate change is in terms of the role it plays in the world's efforts to address the problem. If Beijing makes practical contributions to solutions, particularly to furthering international co-operation, its responsibility arguably declines. If it obstructs robust action on climate change, as it was accused of doing at the 2009 Copenhagen conference, arguably its responsibility increases.

A determination of whether or how much China is responsible for climate change also depends on how we define 'China'. If we define it in terms of the Chinese state and its government, as the Chinese and other governments (as well as most observers) tend to do, history plays a big role, and thus China's responsibility for climate change is reduced.

However, if we define China as the Chinese people, and then look closely at their role, our answer to the question of whether China has responsibility for climate change becomes more complex. Certainly China's poor ought not be blamed for climate change. However, the same cannot be said for China's affluent classes. They ought not to be allowed to hide behind their neighbours' poverty.

Now that millions of Chinese people have joined the global middle and upper classes, moral and practical environmental imperatives demand that they join affluent people in the West in reducing their consumption and pollution. Even if China is not responsible for climate change, many people living there certainly are.

Paul G. Harris is chair professor of global and environmental studies at the Hong Kong Institute of Education. He is editor of China's Responsibility for Climate Change: Ethics, Fairness and Environmental Policy