Climate change

Beijing can't put all blame for climate change on West

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 April, 2012, 12:00am

A number of readers have e-mailed criticising last Wednesday's column in which I argued that Beijing's opposition to a global deal to limit greenhouse-gas emissions is rational, if not altruistic.

In it, I drew on a new academic study that suggested that although a global agreement to restrict emissions would be the most desirable outcome for the world as a whole, it would not be the best option for every country.

The study argued that China, because of its relatively high latitude, would be relatively unaffected if global warming was allowed to run on unchecked. According to the study, by the end of the century, this 'business as usual' scenario is likely to end up costing China some US$360 billion a year in environmental damage.

In contrast, an 'optimum' global deal is likely to cost China, as the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, well over US$1 trillion a year. As a result, it makes hard economic sense for Beijing to resist any international agreement on emissions.

One reader was outraged by this line of reasoning, maintaining that China's opposition to a deal on emissions is not motivated by narrow self-interest, but rather by Beijing's genuine pursuit of climate justice for developing countries.

He argued that it was the developed economies of the Western world that were to blame for global warming. They have been burning fossil fuels and pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for more than 200 years. As a result, they are responsible for the vast majority of the greenhouse-gas emissions of the past, that are now causing climate change.

In contrast, the contribution of late-comers to industrialisation like China is minimal. Therefore it is the countries of Europe and North America that should bear the burden of tackling climate change, since they caused it in the first place.

Our reader isn't the only person to cite this argument. One senior Chinese official came out with it just a few weeks ago.

Even if it were true, this line of reasoning would be badly flawed. But it's not true that China's historical emissions of greenhouse gases are negligible compared to the industrial countries of the West.

Even 30 years ago, at the beginning of the economic-reform process, China, with its inefficient coal-fired industrial base, was a big emitter in international terms. It was spewing out more carbon dioxide than Germany, according to data compiled by BP, even though its economy was a fraction of the size.

And since then, China's fossil-fuel use, and its output of greenhouse gases, has ballooned. From 1.5 billion tonnes in 1980, China's carbon-dioxide emissions shot up to more than 8.3 billion tonnes in 2010. That's a third more than the United States, the world's second largest producer of greenhouse gases.

As a result, China's share of historical emissions from fuel use has risen rapidly. As the first chart below - based on data from the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre, updated with figures from the BP Statistical Review - shows, China is now the second-biggest historical contributor to the greenhouses gases in our atmosphere.

Its historical emissions still rank well below those of the US. But they are far greater than those of Germany, or Britain, where the industrial revolution began.

Of course, burning fossil fuels is not the only source of greenhouse gases. If we are to consider historical responsibility for climate change, we also need to account for net emissions from changes in land use and from agriculture.

And as the second chart below shows, China's emissions from these sources over the last 160 years are about 40 per cent greater than those of the US, and five times Europe's.

In total then, China is a veritable giant in the ranking of historical greenhouse-gas emitters; not as big as the US, but far bigger than any other single country.

I'm sure it's possible to quibble with the data here. But the overall picture won't change: the argument that developing countries, including China, bear no responsibility for the accumulation of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere simply isn't true.

Of course, there are all sorts of other objections Beijing could make to a global deal to restrict emissions, including China's relatively low emissions per head. But the bottom line is that a deal without China is no deal at all, and it seems Beijing believes it is not in China's self-interest to sign up to one.