LONDON — The United States is off the hook: last year China overtook the U.S. to become the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide. “The tall tree attracts the wind,” and from now on China will be the main target of the criticism that used to be directed at the U.S. for refusing to accept binding limits on its greenhouse gas emissions.
What’s particularly striking is the speed with which China has passed the U.S. In 2005 its CO2 emissions were two percent lower than those of the U.S.; in 2006 they were eight percent higher. Yet China only has four times the population of the U.S., and the average Chinese is nothing like a quarter as rich as the average American. In fact, the vast majority of Chinese don’t even own cars. So why does China produce so much CO2?
One reason is cement. The pace of building in China is so intense that the country produces 44 percent of the world’s cement (the U.S. produces 4 percent), and cement production is a major source of greenhouse gases. The main culprit, however, is coal, which accounts for 70 percent of China’s energy consumption.
China already burns more than twice as much coal as the U.S., and almost as much as everybody else in the world combined. In the race to keep up with soaring energy demand, it is building 550 new coal-fired power stations (they are currently opening at the rate of two a week), and nobody has the time to experiment with clean-burning coal technologies that are still new even in the West. So China’s emissions will continue to race ahead of everybody else’s.
How can they let this happen? Don’t they understand that emissions growing at this pace will pitch the world into runaway climate change, and that they will be among the worst sufferers if that happens? Well, yes and no. The Chinese public mostly does not understand where this is leading, because there has been little discussion of climate change in their media, but also because their attention is focused closer to home.
“China’s position today is similar to that of the U.S. or Europe during the ’70s, when people first started to be concerned about pollution and the destruction of ecosystems,” explained climate change expert Zou Ji of Renmin University in Beijing. “We have only just started being concerned about local environmental issues. When we become richer and richer . . . people will have more time and more resources to pay attention to something not directly linked to themselves.”
But climate change will affect the lives of ordinary Chinese people, and the government and the experts know it. One government study last year predicted a 37 percent fall in crop yields within the next 50 years if current trends persist. Since we may assume that climate change will be having comparable effects elsewhere and that even a rich China will be unable to make up the shortfall by importing food, that prediction implies mass starvation. Don’t they care?
Of course they care, but they are in a high-stakes poker game and they cannot afford to blink. There is going to have to be a global agreement on curbing greenhouse-gas emissions within the next five to 10 years or the world faces runaway climate change, but countries like China and India must get special terms or their hopes of a prosperous future are doomed.
Put yourself in China’s shoes. Five hundred years ago average incomes in Europe, India and China were about the same.
Then the Europeans got the jump on everybody else technologically, grew unimaginably rich and powerful, and conquered practically the whole world. They also industrialized, and for 200 years it was their industries, their cities, their vehicles that poured excess CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Now the rich countries are concerned about the consequences. Now they are even willing to curb their emissions (though some rich countries less so than others) — but they can easily afford to, because they are already rich and bound to remain so.
Whereas if China imposes the same kind of curbs on its emissions, then it will not become a country where most people are prosperous and secure in this generation, or perhaps ever. The same goes for India and all the other once-poor countries that are now experiencing very rapid economic growth. So the deal must be that they get to keep on growing fast, and the rich countries take the strain.
There are two main ways for the developed countries to take the strain. One is to cut their own emissions very deeply, leaving some room for the developing countries to expand theirs. The other way is to pay directly for cuts in the emissions of the developing countries: pay them to adopt clean-burning coal technologies, pay them to build renewable energy sources, pay them not to cut the rain-forests down. Pay them quite a lot, in fact, because otherwise we all suffer.
The developing countries will never get that deal unless they demonstrate that they are unwilling to curb their emissions without it. That is what they are doing at the moment, and it’s not actually a poker game at all. It is a game of chicken.