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Seeing China’s Climate Emissions Clearly

Article PhotoOne 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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Author: Bill

Stumbling down the Middle Path, one day at a time.

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