The truth about China the climate scapegoat


Durban climate conferenceFor a number of years the US and other countries such as Canada, Russia and more recently Japan have said they are unwilling to sign any binding treaty to significantly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions unless China does the same.

They point to the fact that China is now the number one emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. In 2005, its emissions reached 7232 megatonnes.

This argument overlooks important data that undermine its validity and uphold the position of the UN Framework Convention for Climate Change: that countries have common but differentiate responsibilities in solving climate change. Any equitable approach to lowering global emissions must first examine the historical pattern of greenhouse gas releases into the atmosphere.

In a recent paper, Martin Khor, executive director of policy think tank for the developing world The South Centre, calculated that, in the period between 1850 and 2009, about 1214 gigatons of CO2 was released into the atmosphere. Of this amount, Annex 1 countries (rich countries many of which signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997) were responsible for 878 gigatons.

If one set out to determine what would be a fair share of the right to emit greenhouse gases during that period, based on their population as a percentage of the global population, it would amount to 336 gigatons (28 per cent of the total). In fact Annex 1 countries have overshot this by 568 gigatons.

The scientific consensus is that, if we wish to keep the average global temperature below 2 degrees celsius, we can only emit 750 gigatons of carbon (or equivalent) between now and 2050. In light of the historic carbon debt, how should these allocations be made?

Annex 1 countries comprise 16 per cent of the world's population, so the equitable allocation for these countries would be 120 gigatons. However since there is a debt overhang of 568 gigatons, their fair share ought to be a negative budget of 448 gigatons.

According to Khor, 'developed countries will have to go into the territory of 'negative emissions', in order that developing countries will have a decent level of 'development space' sufficient to cushion their path to low-emissions growth'.

A second consideration is that during the past three decades, China has become the workshop of the world, manufacturing many of the consumer goods which benefit people in Europe, the US and elsewhere. The computer I am using to write this article, and the memory stick I am using to save it, were manufactured in China.

Should China be saddled with accounting for the greenhouse emissions involved in manufacturing these goods? Or should the burden be shared by those who benefit from the low cost manufacturing?


At a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in Bali in November, Barack Obama told the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao that China had 'grown up' and must accept its international obligations. Among these would be China's willingness to sign up to binding commitments similar to those which would be undertaken by the US, Europe or Japan.

Khor has argued convincingly that China is still a developing country and should not be bullied into joining a new category that does not square with the facts.

The question is, are we comparing like with like? China's economy the second biggest on the planet and growing, and its foreign reserves stand at US$3 trillion. Those headline figures might seem to put it into the category of a developed country. But that would be deceptive.

As Khor points out, the International Monetary Fund in its latest World Economic Outlook classifies China as a developing country with a per capita GDP of US$4,382. It comes in at number 91 out of the 184 countries surveyed. Six African countries — Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Botswana, Mauritius, South Africa and Namibia — have higher GDP per capita levels than China.

The next measure used by Khor is the 'gross purchasing power' per capita. The cost of living in some countries is lower than in others and that this has a knock-on affect on living standards. Here again China comes in at number 95 — lower than Ecuador.

The UN publishes a Human Development Report each year which assesses the quality of life in broader terms than simply GDP, which include income, schooling, life expectancy etc. In the Human Development Report for 2011, China is ranked 110 out of 187 countries. 

People who visit China are amazed at what has been achieved in a relatively short period of time. Tens of millions have benefitted from the double digit economic growth of the past three decades and a significant number have become millionaires or even billionaires.

But 700 million of China's 1.3 billion live in villages far removed from the more prosperous cities. Many of these people live in grinding poverty. Khor quotes a UN study which estimates that there are 150 million people in China living on less than US$1 per day.

As Khor argues, China is a mid-level developing country with similar socio-economic and ecological problems faced by most developing countries. He concludes that 'if China is pressurised to take on the duties of a developed country and to forgo its status and benefits of a developing country, then many other developing countries that are ahead of China ... may soon be asked to do the same'.

Sean McDonaghSean McDonagh is a Columban missionary priest. He wrote this article from Durban in South Africa where the 17th UN Convention on Climate Change took place last week. 


Topic tags: Sean McDonagh, Durban, climate change, China



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Existing comments

A good article, which highlights some of the issues which may torpedo real, effective and fair global measures to reduce carbon dioxide emission. The fairest and most effective way to move towards a global low carbon economy is helping developing countries. It is far more effective to finance the upgrading of an extremely dirty power station in China than trying to spend hundreds of Millions in marginal projects in the developed countries. The question should be where we can get the “most Green for Bucks”. The article also highlights the outright stupidity of an carbon tax which will be wasted by over 85% in administrative and “social justice “ costs.. There are hundreds of better ways to deal with environmental challenges than spending more money on talkathons and taxes. One thing is sure, Bob Brown and his fans in the Labor Government managed to find the worst possible path.
Beat Odermatt | 14 December 2011

Thanks, Sean. This is the sort of article for which Eureka Street is so valuable. It just keeps producing them. I wonder how long it will be before China can take that 150 million out of grinding poverty - I'm sure they're trying. And I wonder too whether the rest of the world will come to the aid of the millions of Chinese workers who are living lives of grinding and destructive labour so that we with the purchasing power can buy our luxury items cheaply .
Joe Castley | 14 December 2011

In his paraphrasing of Khor's perspective, Sean McDonagh puts a good argument using historical reality to determine an equitable carbon reduction burden between countries.

The outcome - that the fair share of the "rich countries ...which signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 ... ought to be a negative budget of 448 gigatons" shows an equitable burden to be impractical.

Whether or not a cost on carbon emissions will push industry into reducing carbon output; whether USA, Canada, China, India, and Brazil participate or not, it is time to shift the focus of the whole global warming discussion.

Just as the time has passed for serious argument against the reality of global warming, the time has also passed for further trying to prevent a 2 degrees rise in average world temperature by 2050.

Durban has reinforced the Copenhagen outcome that, for economic reasons slightly varying between nations, the world is more ready to accept global warming than to reduce carbon emissions.

The major impacts on humanity will be geographic changes in where large scale food crops can be grown and possible increased desertification of marginal land.

International effort to facilitate the necessary changes in patterns of food distribution will be a better investment than further conferences on reduction of carbon emissions.

Ian Fraser | 14 December 2011

Beat Odermatt wrote: "Bob Brown and his fans in the Labor Government managed to find the worst possible path." In fact what the government did was accept the overwhelming opinion of mainstream science (that there is man-made global warming that must urgently be addressed), and consequently the opinion of mainstream, reputable economists that the best way to address the problem is an emissions trading scheme. If we don't want governments to take advice from the most mainstream and reputable expertise, where would we like that advice to come from. Archbishop Pell?
Russell | 14 December 2011

Facts, facts, facts! The oceans contain about 40 000 Gt of C so what effect, if any, would an annual emission of a bit over 7000Mt (about 0.01%) by China have? Our problem is finding a new energy source which in the long run will provide what we need. we will run out of our present fuels. Whether more carbon dioxide will really effect our climate is still a mute point.
Theo verbeek | 14 December 2011

Only God can control, Global warming, World economies have failed, because of consumer greed and criminal rorting of individual Global economies. We should be morally and ethically responsible towards both fiscal and environmental issues, related to our own nations geographical global position, if we have made a real effort to clean up our own back yard. We may be leaders in achieving some decline in atmospheric pollutants, that really stifle regeneration of the earths surface. China, USA, Russia, Canada, Japan and many European countries, will never sign, binding legal treaties for effective and fair global measures to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. In my sixty four year's I see no tangible evidence of islands sinking, polar bears dying, catastrophic sea level increase's,however I do see man interfering with nature and mismanagement of our natural environment because of greed and political hubris.
Trevor J Bates | 14 December 2011

It is clear from what Sean writes that we and similar "luxury" economies really have to put the brakes on carbon use. What better way than a carbon tax? The sum of the populations of Australia, Canada, USA, Europe, and former Soviet countries must be about three-quarters of that of China. We all benefited from being early in the industrial revolution but we did not really know what we were doing to the atmosphere until about 30 years ago. So talk of a "carbon debt" going back to 1850 is not very helpful except to underline our present need to get serious. The main challenge in lifting the 700M impoverished Chinese up is to encourage and support with all our might the use of non carbon energy sources in their improved life-style
Mike Foale | 14 December 2011

"People who visit China are amazed..." Yes, but has McDonagh ever lived in China, where no matter how rich you are you cannot buy clean air? China will have colonised the moon before it ever gives up its developing nation status here on Earth.
Gavin | 15 December 2011

I find this article, frankly, weird, and if I were Fr McDonagh, I'd not bother saving it to my flash drive.

Concede for the sake of argument the (highly debatable) assumption that anthropogenic greenhouse gas outputs are just about to generate catastrophic global warming.

Ask yourself: why is China (and, eg, North Korea, Romania, etc) not now "developed" – and the West, including par excellence for many decades, little Hong Kong, is?

Uncontroversial (I hope!) answer: Because, in contrast to the West, by brutal state suppression, resulting in the deaths of countless millions, the Chinese autocratic state ran a centralist command economy ­ rather like it still persecutes larger-­than-­one--child families, Christians, etc, today, but even more so.

So it comes to this. We (the West ­ including Hong Kong, Taiwan, etc) ran economies that resulted in wealth creation for billions of people. We didn’t run these economies with the intent or malicious foresight that the world would catastrophically warm thereby. But, hey! these economies lifted millions upon millions into standards of living that were totally unimagined for the vast expanse of human history!

Some regimes, in the face of this massive outbreak of wealth for the common people and in bondage to some “academic scribbler” as Keynes put it so well (though he was a bit of a one, too), chose nevertheless to bind their naturally wealth­-creating populations into grinding poverty ­ fatally so for countless millions. Now, it turns out, that those non-­homicidal, poverty­eliminating economies have (allegedly) inadvertently brought the world to the brink of physical disaster by their very poverty­-eliminating activities. So it’s only just and fair (so say Fr McDonagh et al) that these regimes, which have created a decent life for countless millions should, by a “count-back”, be punished, and that those regimes which are responsible for (and have never apologized for, and are in significant ways actually continuing) the poverty and extinction of equally countless millions, should be privileged in the global response to the (alleged) oncoming catastrophe, because of this (alleged) beneficial but unintended side­effect of their murderous suppression.

HH | 15 December 2011

to RUSSELL:The issue is not global warming or the necessity for moving towards a more environmentally sustainable economy. The issue is the failure to implement an effective policy to achieve environmentally desirable goals. A carbon tax will increase will NOT reduce CO2 emission because of 85% of the money raised will be wasted on administrations and “compensation. The carbon tax is an excellent idea to increase taxes by stealth but will not provide for any real environmental positive outcomes. It is just a plain stupid idea which will do far more harm than good unless you are a direct beneficiary of the massive “compensation” handouts.
Beat Odermatt | 16 December 2011

There can be no doubt the simplest & most effective way Australia can make a serious impact on global emmisions is to cease exporting our coal to China . A high %'age of this coal is shipped from the east coast of Qld ,thus in close proximity to our amazing Great Barrier Reef ,Yet no one seems to mind that Anna B & Julia G platently prostitute it for their royalty dollars . People need to understand that for each ton of coal loaded at Facilities such as Abbott Point ,The 'dedicated cargo' bulk carriers discharge 1/3 of a ton of disgusting ballast water from the most polluted waterways of the world( eg Shanghai)directly into G B Reef lagoon just prior to loading .Please educate yourselves by googling " Chinese polluted waterways ". Abbott Point alone loads an average of one carrier /day & Bligh just gave approval to upgrade it to annual capacity of 380 million tons .Irreparable damage has already been done & future generations will understandably loath us for our compliance .
John Kersh | 22 December 2011

Thanks Sean, I have often thought these things about all our consumer goods coming from China and causing their carbon emissions, as well as the apportioning of carbon emissions by population and historic use of fossil fuels. Thanks for putting it all into print with numbers. Just how we convince our governments to reduce emissions and ourselves to reduce consumption are the challenges.
Mary Betz | 09 January 2012


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