A few years ago this headline (and similar ones in other media) made round:
China overtakes U.S. in greenhouse gas emissions [source]
For years the United States, the only industrialized country that refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, was blamed for being the global “climate offender” no. 1. This changed around 2006, when China became the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter. Though the U.S. remain a scapegoat, they are not alone any more. Although still a developing (i.e., industrializing) country, China is now emitting almost 20% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gases. The Chinese are considered the new “worst climate offender”. But this picture is terribly oversimplified.
There are at least three issues that must be considered before one points out to China as being the world’s biggest “climate offender”. They are: emissions per capita, China’s economy’s structure and its balance of trade, each tightly connected to the issue of development (and the right to develop).
The first point is rather straightforward: while China is the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in absolute terms, it is the biggest country in the world in terms of population at the same time. And a large part of its population is still living in poverty. Using current technologies of power generation (i.e., mainly, coal, hydropower, nuclear), a country must emit a lot if it is to feed 1,3 billion people. But translate the absolute emissions data to a per capita basis, and you will see that China is not that “bad”. Actually, a Chinese is emitting one third of what a German does (on average) – or about one fifth of the average emissions of a US-American. Since China has many more “mouths to feed”, it necessarily has very high absolute greenhouse gas emissions.
Second, one must consider the stage of economic development – China is in the middle of a more or less typical industrialization process, with great emphasis on (heavy) industry (industry and construction accounts for nearly 50% of Chinese GDP – in most industrialized countries it is between 20 and 30%). This is the stage European countries or the US have been at decades ago, perhaps short after World War II. Industrial processes are generally very energy intensive – much more than in the case of services, which are dominating in richer countries -, and thus very emissions intensive. Unfortunately, it seems impossible for a country to “skip” any bigger step in the development process, so one cannot blame China for industrializing itself.
The third issue is linked to that of China’s development stage: it is its trade balance. The People’s Republic is, along with Germany, the world’s biggest net exporter of goods. Most of its largest trade partners with whom it has a trade surplus are developed countries. Thus one could say that through importing goods from China, we in the rich world are exporting greenhouse gas emissions. Many of the products exported by China are energy intensive, so this effect may be even more severe than the trade balance suggests. [Update: here is a recent study about “Growth in emission transfers via international trade”]
It is not my point that China is not to blame for its emissions. The Chinese are emitting very much and seem not to take this issue really seriously (though rich countries don’t as well). But it is unfair to expect from the People’s Republic commitments (e.g., in within a possible post-Kyoto treaty) similar to those by the EU or U.S. Developed countries must overcome their hesitancy to provide technology transfers and other kinds of help for China to support its mitigation efforts. Especially since without China’s participation any form of a post-Kyoto treaty would be futile.