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.