Climate Corner July 2022 – China, you go first …

By Fraser Perkins —

In 2020, China emitted more than twice as much CO2 as the United States: 11.7 B tons compared to our 4.5 B tons.  If the Climate Change narrative ended here, it would be reasonable to expect China to take the lead in mitigating CO2 emissions.  Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end here – and the logic of expecting China to take the lead in climate sustainability crumbles.

First, China has over four times the population of the United States; on a per capita basis, China emits far less than the US.

Second is the impact of trade.  In 2020, exports of goods and services amounted to just under 20% of the Chinese economy, the comparable figure for the US is 10%.  While the CO2 produced by Chinese exports is attributed to China, the end user is elsewhere…the consumer is often in the industrialized west.  In effect, the west and the US outsource some of their CO2 consumption to China.

Third, annual production of CO2 is a yearly snapshot.  What about the cumulative CO2 production since the onset of the Industrial Revolution?  Since 1751 a cumulative total of 1.5 T tons of CO2 have been emitted by humans.  Of this staggering sum, the US has contributed 399 B tons, or roughly a quarter of all emissions.  The comparable figure for China is 200 B tons.

Finally, consider international accords.  The Chinese strategy has been to define itself as a developing country, set modest goals for itself and then easily meet them.  To date, the international community has largely accepted this narrative.  And, what about the U.S.?  President Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Agreement of 2015 – and in the process undermined the credibility of the U.S. as a responsible stakeholder in the Climate debate.

As the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases, the current silver medalist in annual CO2 production, a leader in outsourcing CO2 to other nations, and an erratic participant in solving the Climate Crisis, there is one inescapable conclusion.  The United States must take the lead and take the painful steps toward decarbonization before we can expect, cajole, encourage, and threaten others to do the same.

Next month I’ll outline the four steps required to decarbonize.


1 Comment

  1. Great points, Fraser. I have repeatedly heard people arguing that China is a larger emitter of CO2 than the U.S., but then being surprised that it is not true on a per capita basis. Also, your third point is that CO2 lasts in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. So, the man-made CO2 in the atmosphere currently contributing to climate change is an accumulation of post-industrial activity since the 1700’s, and the U.S. has contributed more than any other country, and almost twice that of China.
    The worst part, though, is politicians refusing to cut CO2 emissions over economic reasons, without factoring in the environmental, health, and economic costs of climate change. Non-fossil fuel energy sources are the future, and Republicans would cede leadership in those areas to China and Europe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.