Special Reports
Discover the Truth About China's Impact on Climate Change

BBC Green

China's pollution Think there’s no point in reducing your carbon
footprint because of China’s rising emissions? Think again, says Duncan Clark

Though it didn’t make much of a splash in the mainstream press, an announcement
in 2007 from the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency was big news in eco
circles. It said that China had overtaken the US as the chief emitter of CO2 –
years earlier than anyone had expected.

Other groups, such as the International Energy Agency, measure emissions
differently and don’t expect China to take the number one spot until some time
this year. But no one disagrees about the general trend.

The numbers are staggering - for the past few years, just the increase in
China’s CO2 output was greater than the total output of the UK. It’s not hard to
understand why some people find this disheartening and wonder whether it’s even
worth reducing our own emissions.

But when you look at the facts, the argument for doing nothing just doesn’t
stand up. China is no longer a distant country with far-away problems – we as a
planet face interlinked and mutual challenges. So let’s address some of the most
common myths surrounding China’s emissions and realise why it is everyone’s

1. China is the worst polluter

Though China’s total emissions are sky-high, they’re spread between around 1.3
billion people – almost one-fifth of the world. In terms of emissions per
person, China isn’t too bad at all – lower than, say, Algeria, Jamaica and Uzbekistan.

The average Chinese person is responsible for less than half the CO2 of the
average Brit and five times less than the average American. In truth, much of
China’s reputation as a climate criminal is the result of it being so huge and
populous. If the same area consisted of ten separate countries, its emissions
would probably rarely get a mention in the world press.

2. China’s economic boom is an environmental disaster

When looking at China’s carbon footprint and other developing countries it is
important to remember that current emissions are only a small part of the
picture. Carbon dioxide typically remains in the atmosphere for around 100 years
after being released. That means that the majority of the carbon currently
warming the atmosphere was emitted before China’s economic rise.

If you consider CO2 emissions since the beginning of the industrial era, the US
is responsible for 28 per cent of the total, with Europe and Russia accounting
for another 25 per cent. China contributes just 8 per cent, despite its far
bigger population.

According to the US Energy Information Administration, even if China’s emissions
continue to soar until 2025, the total amount of ‘Chinese’ CO2 in the air will
still be half of the total amount of ‘American’ CO2.

3. China’s emissions have nothing to do with the West

Another reason why we shouldn’t blame China is because a large slice of their
emissions is caused by manufacturing goods for export to the West. Is it fair
that China is held accountable for the CO2 released from a factory producing
toys, tables or stereos for Europe or America?

Not according to Qin Gang, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman. "A lot of the
things you wear, use and eat are produced in China”, he says. “On the one hand,
you increase the production in China, on the other hand you criticise [our] emissions."

There’s no simple way to calculate the percentage of Chinese emissions that are
created by the manufacture of goods for the West. But if the ubiquity of ‘Made
in China’ labels in our shops is anything to go by, it must be a sizeable proportion.

4. China isn’t facing up to its carbon footprint

Rocketing emissions are always a serious concern, but does China really deserve
to be pilloried as a carbon villain? Today, it is beginning to take some steps
to curb its use of fossil fuels. In 2004 it introduced fuel efficiency standards
for cars that are stricter than those found in the US – and they will be
tightened further in 2008.

This is one example of the policies included in China’s ‘National Climate Change
Programme’, which aims to increase energy efficiency by 20 per cent between 2005
and 2010. Though this plan doesn’t include cutting total emissions, it’s a clear
sign that green issues are on the agenda.

Looking to the future, it is possible that China’s growth will stall due to
constraints such as a lack of fuel to power further growth. In 2005, US author
James Kunstler estimated that if China’s oil consumption continued soaring at
its current rate, the country would be consuming 100 per cent of total world oil
exports by 2015. This is clearly unpractical, so it looks likely that something
will have to give.

In the meantime, there’s much that countries and individuals everywhere can do
to reduce their carbon emissions. Simply blaming China seems a pretty poor
excuse for inaction.


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