China and India: Just what should their CO2 responsibilities be?

In the climate debates, I hear it all the time: why should the US do anything when China and India are the fastest growing and largest emitters of greenhouse gases on the planet? Though I make it a personal policy to never discussion mitigation policies with characters who will not even accept the reality of the problem, the question does, on its own merits, deserve a thoughtful answer.

Clearly, climate disruption due to accumulating greenhouse gases is a global problem and requires a cooperative and global solution. We all share the same planetary atmosphere, and CO2 is a well mixed gas in this atmosphere. A single source of CO2 emissions anywhere increases CO2 levels everywhere. I think it is also clear that ultimately, we all need to live zero, or at least very close to zero, net emission lifestyles. CO2 put into this shared atmosphere will stay there for hundreds and thousands of years, which is effectively forever in terms of human political processes. That means that cuts to 1990 levels, or 50% of 1990 levels or cuts to anything greater than almost zero is not enough.

What this all means is that any final solution to our climate crisis will require very large and practically identical restrictions on all of the world’s economies, including China, India, Europe, Africa, Australia, Japan, North and South America and all the rest of the globe.

But how do we get there, and what is a fair accounting of collective responsibility for the continuing accumulation of GHG’s? Collective agreements require first and foremost understanding the point of view of each of the participants. So while I really do understand the naive appeal of simply saying China is the largest emitter, so China bears the largest responsibility, I think even the most cursory examination of the issue from their point of view reveals this hardly qualifies as the whole story.

The first and most obvious problem with such a simplistic approach is that China, one of 200+ countries in the world, has almost one fifth of the planet’s people. It is ridiculous to expect emissions to be accounted for on a strictly country by country basis. Yes, China just surpassed the US in total emissions, but they have over 4 times as many people. India is a close second in the world with over 3.5 times the US population. Surely any equitable and permanent solution to our global emissions problem would allow each of them to have several times the emissions of the US. What we are talking about is some kind of per capita accounting. This may not be the whole story, but how can the developed world expect China and India to come to the table without this as at least a starting point?

Setting aside country by country rankings, when we look at global emissions on a per capita basis, the picture is very different. In this accounting (emissions only, ignoring land use changes, data cited is not the most current), Australia is number 5, the US is number 7 and where do China and India rank? China is number 99 on this list, and India is 146th! And we expect them to get their act together first? Would you accept this as a starting position if you were in their position? Hardly.

Careful readers might have noticed I began the preceding argument with the phrase “responsibility for the continuing accumulation of GHG’s”. This is because there is another critical aspect to the third world’s view of global agreements on emissions, an aspect even more often left out of the picture: responsibility for the already existing accumulation of greenhouse gases. The CO2 in the air today was not emitted today. Significant emissions began with the industrial revolution and this revolution initially affected the western world by far more than the eastern world. So there is another accounting that India and China would like the developed world to consider, and that is how much of the current problem – e.i. climate change already happening and climate change in the pipe over the next few decades that is the direct result of CO2 in the air right now, even absent any additional emissions – how much of this problem is their fault? When this accounting is done, the US as a country bears responsibility for the greatest portion by a factor of 5:3 over the next largest culprit (which is China). India’s responsibility is only one sixth. Those figures are not adjusted per capita either, which for the same reasons as above is a fair demand. Adjusted, the US’s per capita responsibility is over six times greater than China’s.

I would like to emphasis that I completely agree that any further negotiations, treaties, protocols, agreements, whatever, must include all significant world economies. China and India must be at the table prepared to make commitments. But people who believe that these two economies need to be the first to act or must cut exactly as deep as the western economies or there is nothing to negotiate about are not even making the most superficial effort to see other points of view. That is a guaranteed to fail starting point.

Then again, that may well be the purpose.

14 thoughts on “China and India: Just what should their CO2 responsibilities be?

  1. I find the whole total historic emissions argument completely spurious. It wasn’t until the 1980s that we realised properly that greenhouse gases were a serious problem. Giving people a responsibility for things they could both have had no knowledge of (and thus no reason to act differently) and had no ability to change (as historic acts) is a very weak moral argument. Likewise, it ignores the fact that fossil fuels in one place were used for economic activities that had impacts elsewhere. If the US or Europe had zero emissions and no existence, developing nations would have had few export markets.

    If we were to look at all cumulative emissions since 1990, on the other hand, this argument might start to look quite reasonable.

    But this would weaken the Chinese bargaining position quite considerably, and give the US something they’d actually have to engage with – so they’d both have incentive to reject it. Despite that, I think that this position is one worth considering seriously.


  2. Legally speaking, I don’t know of too many things where ignorance of what you were doing gets you out of your responsibilities, do you? Morally, you may have a point in principal, but I think your choice of dates is arguable. The first published paper on the potential for a warming planet due to CO2 emissions was in the late 1800’s. I’m not saying that means no excuses after that date, but 1990 is a bit after the danger had been well identified, even if projections of consequences had not been.

    I agree completely that final consumption of economic activity should enter in the picture, but this makes things quite complicated, maybe impossibly so. But market mechanisms should work well if we take the simple approach of imposing the costs at the point of emission.

    All in all, I think the major thrust of the article, ie there is a lot more too it than “china is the worst polluter”, still stands.

    Thanks for the comment!


  3. BTW, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, signed by the US, explicitly acknowledges the points I raised above:

    …Noting that the largest share of historical and current global emissions of greenhouse gases has originated in developed countries, that per capita emissions in developing countries are still relatively low and that the share of global emissions originating in developing countries will grow to meet their social and development needs…


  4. I think, that the argument fails in the first point, because the obligation to protect the environment is independent of any action of others. It is the same like you expect someone not to steal without asking, if there might be other thieves around.

    The second point is, that I deem to be poor per capita or accumulation measures. If I look at a world economy I would ask the highest possible level of efficiency from every country. How much CO2 do they emit for every amount of gross domestic product? The obligation for the USA in first place comes from the fact, that they waste about 2 times as much CO2 for the same amount wealth as do European countries. That means, they could cut 50% of the emissions and stay as wealthy as before by just acquiring European level. Looking to Europe, the same kind of calculations would force Germany, UK, and France to try getting on the level of Switzerland or Sweden and again cut there emissions by 30 to 50%.

    It is difficult to argue against the demand, that a developed country should strive for the highest level of efficiency. It is a reduction of about a quarter of all global emissions if just the developed countries would stop to waste, not talking about any serious actions to cut fossil fuel dependend energy production.

    Of course other countries have to follow, and it is not just China and India. Even countries like Indonesia, Persia, Turkey, Mexico, Russia, and Brasil together easily can blow any action to protect the climate. But if the developed countries set the standrads for efficiency, other countries just don’t want to stay behind. They will be drawn with it automatically. It is the psychology of developing countries, that they always want to share the achievements of the rich. They want to share in wasting, if this is the standard and they will want to share in being efficient and environmental, if this becomes the standard.

    With apologies for my poor English.


  5. Joerg, the problem with GDP-carbon-intensity is that it offers no path or reduction targets for serious climate change mitigation. While there are absolute limits in terms of ppm CO2e the atmosphere can take up unless dangerous climate change is likely to occur, GDP-carbon-intensity only gives you relative figures. US emissions are simply too high, no matter whether they produce as much as they do today, or half, or twice as much. The same holds true for European Union countries, though on a smaller scale, as well as for China on an even smaller scale. GDP-carbon-intensity is nice to measure and compare carbon efficiency of economies, but if a society consumes way too much, it’s a poor excuse to say they do that in a rather efficient manner.


  6. Matt Springer:

    The choice isn’t between cutting emissions and being equitable with Indian and Chinese people. It’s between equitably cutting emissions in these places and not cutting them at all. There’s no way in hell China and India are going to accept any package that involves making their people one-fourth or one-fifth as “valuable” as an American. Try getting an Indian politician to accede to that kind of proposition, and you’ve got someone who’ll be pushed out in a hurry. (Here’s what his opponents will play – slaves in the US were three-fifths human, a woman under sharia has half a voice and one-fourth of a husband. We will not be twenty percent human.)

    We simply aren’t such a species as that sort of thing is going to play with. If that’s how global plans to cut emissions play out, then I suspect Chinese and Indians will choose ‘fairness though the earth bakes.’ Even more important, C and I can bluff longer and more plausibly (throwing out their steering wheels, as it were) than the US can – 3rd world countries, lots of development left to do, higher returns per unit of pollution, etc.


  7. Nils Simon, I don’t see the difference in opinions. I am talking about the argument for developed countries to control emissions even when total emissions at other places are higher. Emission targets are another topic. In the long run it should be at about 0 gCO2/Euro GDP (or $). But how to make it run? No developed country will accept a per capita measure, and judging just by total emissions doesn’t do any justice either, it just leads to scapegoating. Striving for efficiency on the other hand is a good motivator. Does China want to be called inefficient? Could the USA accept to be regarded as inefficient?

    Of course I understand, that it is possible to introduce complications. Like the differentiation between importers and exporters of goods. Becoming an importer can artificially reduce the share in CO2-emissions. But this is already another talking point.


  8. I think Matt may be expressing the reality, albeit an unfair one. There is simply no way the planet can sustain the 2.5 billion people in China and India at a carbon emitting lifestyle even one tenth of that lived in North America. But my main point was that we have to acknowledge this inequity and make some concessions to (partly) compensate for it. Even if reality is what it is, we must at least be able to say to the developing world we are doing our best.

    Ultimately, India and China need to realize it is in their own interests to mitigate climate change, no matter who is responsible for most of it. The big problem is the blatantly self serving behavior of the last US administration at a time when international agreements were supposed to get this very ball rolling. The US should have been developing the technologies for efficient and sustainable GDP production, which they would have then sold to the developing world anyway. This approach would have been better for the nation, but as it would not have been better for the vested fossil fuel interests, it was not taken.


  9. My point is more that C&I are better equipped to play hardball than the US is, both in terms of the emotion and symbolism of domestic politics, and in terms of what cutting down on carbon appetite would actually mean in terms of development and living standards.

    For one thing, if carbon remains as important as it is now, I strongly suspect C&I would rather grit their teeth and bear global climate change, coastline changes, disease et al, than accept a lifestyle less than “one tenth of that lived in North America.” (I’m Indian, and I know it’s how *I* would want it if push came to shove). It isn’t that likely the US will be able to force-stop this.

    IOW, as this plays out in the geopolitics of the 21st century, unless rapid technological improvements render all this moot, I expect the US to blink first on emissions control. An Indian negotiator really can expect to extract considerable real and face-saving concessions, because he falls on his sword politically if he doesn’t. Tons of basic development remains to be done just to stop these places being third world. The populations aren’t exactly going to decide, out of the goodness of their hearts, to voluntarily continue to live third-world lifestyles they see others on TV live anything but.


  10. Here’s another voice in favor of a per-capita emissions approach.

    1. As has been argued above, China, India et al in the developing world simply will not sign onto a global climate treaty that doesn’t apportion emission rights equally.

    2. The Earth has a limited capacity to absorb carbon naturally. Probably somewhere around 4.5 GtC/year.

    3. There will be 9 billion people on Earth by 2050. So that works out to about half a tonne of carbon per person per year. Or 1.8 tonnes of CO2. If we don’t find a way to plot a schedule to meet that target, we might as well just play backgammon.

    That will have to be the starting point.It means a lot of work for the US, Canada and Australia, all of whom are at better than 20 tC/person/year, but not so difficult for Africans, who only emit 2.2. India, at 1.1, actually gets some room to grow.

    Let the nations trade portions of their per-capita quota in exchange for various goods and services, but without an equitable allotment of per-capita emissions rights, there will be no useful agreement.


  11. I like James’ approach, with some caveats:

    *nations with excess cumulative responsibility should have to hit targets earlier than others (but can trade quotas). A sliding scale should even out per-capita cumulative contributions by some date, say 2100 (again, tradeable quotas can trump).

    *nations shouldn’t be punished for controlling populations while others are rewarded for the reverse. Total national allocation should be based on percentage of world population at a fixed time. I nominate 1975, when most colonies became independent (therefore responsible for their population growth) and scientists were already aware of the risk of climate change (certainty isn’t necessary).

    *nations shouldn’t be punished for taking in immigrants. Net immigration after the same fixed date like 1975 should have the effect of taking the immigrants’ quotas with them to their new countries.

    I’m sure these ideas will all be adopted immediately.


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