Saturday, March 2, 2013

Why China Should Not Go First on Climate Change

It may actually be the climate denialists' favourite refrain (particularly in Canada), that since China is now the world leader on carbon emissions, it has the moral obligation to lead on emissions reduction and countries like Canada can sit back until China or India have taken action.

It is true that at 9.7 billion tonnes of CO2 emitted (2011), China is the current world leader, but China's "leadership" in this area only began in 2006.  Anthropogenic Global Warming is not just about this year's emissions or last year's, but the cumulative amount of carbon in the atmosphere.  China was a very poor country for most of the 20th Century, it's just absurd and specious to try and blame them for this problem that took most of a century to create.  From Time For Change, (using data from the World Resources Institute) we have the cumulative emissions for the largest emission countries from 1900 to 2002.  I have totaled their figures (in red) and added percentages of that total (in black) to get a sense of who is really responsible for the existing pool of carbon in the atmosphere:

Some points that jump out at me:

  • Canada is the 10th highest emitter.  If your list of countries that need to act on climate change doesn't cover the top 10, what kind of methodology could you use to arrive at that?  Maybe Iceland or New Zealand could claim their emissions are too small in the grand scheme to matter, but 2.5% of all historical emissions makes us a heavy hitter.  
  • The disparity between Canada's 0.5% of global population and our 2.5% of cumulative emissions is even starker than our disparity between population and yearly emissions.  We're five times more to blame for this problem than the average human anywhere else on the world.
  • 2.5% of anything is substantial. No one scoffing at 2.5% would happily give up 2.5% of their income, or be displeased with a 2.5% raise.  
  • Italy, a far larger economy and population is far below Canadian emissions.  Italy is a developed "rich" world country, whose citizens like driving cars, eating meat and flying to exotic vacation spots.  Clearly, Canada can do a lot better, even with our long cold winters.
  • Japan has remarkably low historical emissions given that it was the #2 economy in the world for several decades before China took that spot.
  • The US is clearly the biggest culprit here, and though this chart only goes to 2002, the US remained the biggest polluter for 4 more years after this, and the 6 years since 2006 will not have closed the gap for China by very much.  Maybe China is now responsible for 15% of cumulative global emissions but that would still make the US more than two times the amount of emissions.
  • Australia, a country with a similar resource dependent economy, similar population and wealth has yet only caused half the total emissions of Canada.  That has not stopped them from implementing a carbon tax.  
  • 15 of the top 20 countries are in Europe or the OECD (the usual list of "rich" or "developed" countries).  8 of the top 10 emitters are developed countries.
This position that others should do the work, go first and no action is possible until China or India jump on board is clearly morally and pragmatically ludicrous.  We caused most of this mess, obviously others were going to want to get in on the party while the going was good.  We have the obligation to end this thing for ourselves, and then we will have credibility to demand action from the developing world (and far improved ability to help them, since we'll already have developed the technology and policies to do it).  

Finally every country or jurisdiction that takes action on reducing GHG emissions is making it easier for everyone else to act, by learning lessons, working out policy kinks and proving critical mass to alternative energy or efficiency technologies.  

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