Is China being used as a scapegoat by countries which are unwilling to make significant cuts in their greenhouse gas emissions? Fr Sean McDonagh SSC


For a number of years the United States and other countries such as Canada, Russia  and more recently Japan, have stated that they are unwilling to sign any binding treaty to significantly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions unless China does the same.  In support of their position, these countries point to the fact that China is now the number one emitter of greenhouse gases in the world.  In 2005, its greenhouse gas emissions reached 7,232 Megatonnes of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Carbon Emissions between 1850 and 2009

At first glance this argument looks plausible enough. However, it overlooks some very important data on a number of fronts, which undermine the validity of the argument and upholds the position of the UN Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC) which states that countries have common but differentiate responsibilities in solving climate change.  Any equitable approach to lowering global carbon emissions must first examine the historical pattern of  greenhouses gases releases into the atmosphere.

Equity in determining the Right to Emit CO2

In a recent paper Martin Khor, the Executive Director of South Centre based in Geneva, has calculated that, in the period between 1850 and 2009, about 1,214 Gigatons of  CO2 was released into the atmosphere. Of this amount, Annex 1 countries (rich countries many of which signed up to the Kyoto Protocol in 1997) were responsible for 878 Gigatons.  If one set out to determine what a fair share of the right to emit greenhouses gases during that period, based on their population as a percentage of the global population, it would amount to 336 Gigatons or 28% of the total amount.  In fact, Annex 1 countries have overshot their fair amount by a massive 568 Gigatons.

The scientific consensus is now adamant that, if we wish to keep the average global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius, we can only emit 750 Gigatons of carbon (equivalent)  into the atmosphere between now and 2050.  In the light of the historic carbon debt, how should these allocations be made?  Given that Annex 1 countries only comprise 16% of the world’s population, the equitable allocation for these countries should be 120 Gigatons. But since there is a debt overhang of 568 gigatons, their fair share ought to be a negative budget of 448 Gigatons.    According to Khor, “to fulfil the environmental goal of a global cut to 50% to 85%, it is clear that developed countries will have to go into the territory of “negative emissions”, in order that the developing countries will have a decent level of “development space” sufficient to cushion their path to low-emissions growth.”[1]

A second consideration which needs to be looked at seriously is the fact that China, during the past three decades, has become the work shop of the world.  It is manufacturing many of the consumer goods which benefits people in Europe, the US and elsewhere by providing a plethora of gadgets at a very low cost.  Both the computer which I am using to write this article, and the memory stick which I am using the save the text, have been manufactured in China. Should China alone be saddled with accounting for these greenhouse gases involved in manufacturing these goods, or should the burden be shared by those people and countries which benefit from this low cost manufacturing?


Is China still a developing nation or has it graduated to the developed category?

In a recent article Martin Khor has argued convincingly that China is still a developing country and that it should not be bullied into joining a new category which does not square with the true facts of the situation.[2]  At a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) in Bali in November 2011,  President 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.

The question is, are we comparing like with like – apples with apples but not with oranges?  China is a huge country, its economy is now the second biggest on the planet and growing, its foreign reserves stand at US$3 trillion and its greenhouse gas emissions have now exceeded those of the US.  Those headline figures might seem to put it into the category of a developed country.  But that would be deceptive, since it fails to take into account the population of China.

Khor points out that the International Monetary Fund in its latest World Economic Outlook classifies China as a developing country with a per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of US$4,382.  In this league table it comes in at number 91, out of the 184 countries covered in the survey.  Many will find it strange that 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 Martin Khor is the  “ gross purchasing power” per capita.  This covers that fact 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.  Many people involved in development work are critical of the traditional economic measurement of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or Gross National Product (GNP).  They rightly argue that these can give a lopsided view of the economic and social well-being of a country.  As result of these criticisms the United Nations publishes a Human Development Report each year which assesses the quality of life in broader terms which include income, schooling, life expectancy etc.  In the Human Development Report for 2011, China is ranked 110 out of 187 countries.

China’s per capita greenhouse gas emission are one-fourth of per capita emissions in the US

While China is now the world’s number one emitter of greenhouse gases, China’s per capita emissions of CO2 (e) is 5.5 tonnes which places it at 84 in the list of per capita emissions for other countries across the globe.  In fact, from the beginning of the current phase of industrialization in Chine in the early 1980s until the late 1990s, energy intensity in China grew only half as fast as its GDP (Gross Domestic Product).  (Energy intensity is a measure of the amount of energy required for every dollar produced in the economy. It is often used to compare the productivity of different economies, and says some thing about the cost and resource efficiency of production. The lower the energy intensity of an economy, the more energy efficient it is per unit of production).  Since about the year 2000, a change has taken place. The per capita income increase is now accompanied by an increase, rather than decrease, in energy intensity. This has led to a dramatic increase in greenhouse gas emissions.  Nevertheless, the per capita emissions in the US by contrast are 23.4 tonnes, which is over 4 times that of China.

What people forget when they look at the enormous strides which China has made economically since the mid-1980s, is the size of its population.  At present it stands at 1.3 billion.  People who visit China are amazed at what has been achieved in a relatively short period of time, especially in cities, many of which are heavily polluted.  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.  What people forget is that 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 United Nations study which estimates that there are 150 million people in China living on less than US$1 per day.

Khor argues that despite an extraordinary economic success story, which has many negative ecological and even social consequences, China is a middle-level developing country with similar socio-economic and ecological problems faced by most developing countries.  Martin Khor, who has been championing the cause of poor people across the globe for three decades through his involvement in the Third World Debt movement from the late 1970s onwards, 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 (at least in per capita terms) may soon be also asked to do the same.”[3]

China leads the solar revolution

This does not mean that China does not have obligations to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.  While the Chinese economy is still very much dependent on coal, huge strides have been made in the area of renewable energy. At side event here at Durban last week, (December 4th 2011)  Eric Usher, of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), said China now is the world’s largest manufacturer of solar panels. According to him “renewable energy has now reached a tipping point where it is becoming an important part of the global energy mix….. The price of these technologies is dropping.  For example, the cost of solar panels has dropped by about 65 percent, largely because of production in China.”[4]


[1] Martin Khor, “The Equitable sharing of atmospheric and development space: Summary” Climate Policy Briefing,  No. 4.* December 2010.

[2] Martin Khor, “Is China still a developing nation?” The Star, November 21, 2011,  page 27.

[3][3] ibid

[4] Suren Naidoo, “China leads the solar revolution,” The Mercury Network, December 7th 2011, page 1


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