Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Chinese and US carbon emissions: myths and morality

Statistics and spin
"China is inappropriately made a scapegoat in this case because what causes the climate change is not today's emissions, it's today's atmospheric composition and we [USA] are primarily responsible for the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere - more than three times more than China and actually on a per capita basis more than an order of magnitude [i.e. ten times]. So to blame China and to say that we have to wait for them is nonsense."

- James Hansen, head of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in this interview.

Statistics can frequently be misleading. And so it really matters which statistics are given the most attention. It is true that China is currently the country that emits the most carbon dioxide each year. Yet Hansen is right to point out the massive historical and per capita disparity between the west and China (and India, of course). The climate change we are currently experiencing and the same again (more or less) already "in the pipeline" are due to emissions so far (there is a lag between the addition of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and rising atmospheric temperatures as most of the energy initially goes into the oceans). And the carbon dioxide currently in the atmosphere is due very largely to the US, Germany and the UK (in that order).

Since cumulative emissions are more important than the current rate of emissions (due to the long period of time that about half the carbon dioxide we release stays in the atmosphere), then focussing simply on current rates without considering the cumulative totals obscures the bigger picture. And comparing countries with widely disparate populations also assumes that the only relevant moral unit is the nation state, a very odd assumption for individualists in the US to perpetuate. It makes much more sense to speak primarily in per capita terms. When these considerations are included, as Hansen points out, the US has little moral authority to consider China the largest contributor to the problem. Indeed, a further factor worth pondering is that roughly one-third of all China's emissions result from producing goods for western markets, so if we look at the consumption levels driving the dangerous emissions, then once again the west has little right to place the lion's share of blame for today's situation on China.

However, future emissions are also relevant, since (simplifying quite a bit), it is really the total amount of carbon dioxide humans release that matters. If we're to stay below 450 ppm (which has been the rough goal accepted by most governments - whether 450 is already too dangerous is a discussion for another day), then we've already spent more than half the carbon budget. Pre-industrial levels were around 280 ppm and we're currently at 390 ppm and rising (since more carbon dioxide is entering the atmosphere than leaving it). If this is accepted as a reasonable goal, then even if the US entirely stopped all carbon emissions tomorrow (impossible, but this is a thought experiment), China would never be able to emit as much carbon dioxide per capita as the US already has.

Does this mean that China (and other rapidly industrialising nations) bear no responsibility for their current (and rapidly rising) emissions? Of course not, but it is clear that the developed world has contributed far more to the problem than the developing world and so rightly ought to bear most responsibility for addressing it. Simply looking at current emissions obscures morally relevant considerations and enables the world's richer nations to downplay the role we have played in causing the mess. Unfortunately, such arguments are not widely understood or accepted in industrialised countries.

If you would like to see some of these statistics visualised, then Gapminder is an excellent resource. If you follow this link and click "play", you'll see a historical progression of various nations' contributions. The size of the circle indicates population size. The x-axis is per capita emissions and the y-axis is cumulative emissions. Colours are for region. You can play around with all the settings to see all kinds of relationships (a two minute tutorial is here). I haven't managed to find any graphs that compare per capita cumulative emissions. Doing so would demonstrate that China and the US are not simply in different ball parks but are playing entirely different games.


byron smith said...

Of course, I am not simply speaking of China and the US, but they serve as convenient symbols of the developed and the developing world.

byron smith said...

Oh, and in case you've heard that human emissions are tiny compared to natural ones, read this.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Byron, thanks for being so faithful on this subject. I feel like those of us who believe "creation care" is part of Christian discipleship are often just beating our heads against the nearest brick walls. I write on these topics, but I get exhausted.
Your work is both faithful and creative and always connected to good factual sources. I send many people your way.

I hope some of your eco-theological work will be published as a book.

Roland and Laura said...

Byron, how does China's behaviour at Copenhagen play into that story?

byron smith said...

Roland and Laura - That is a good (though complex) question. I recently posted a link to an article written by one of China's former chief climate negotiators. Here are some highlights:

"We cannot blindly accept that protecting the climate is humanity’s common interest – national interests should come first. Individual enthusiasm and willingness to make sacrifice for the sake of the climate is worthy of respect and praise. I myself usually walk or take the bus to work. The individual can choose not to drive, but China cannot choose not to have an automobile industry. The individual can save power, but there are 600 million people in India without electricity – the country has to develop and meet that need. And if that increases emissions, I say, “So what?” The people have a right to a better life.
"When it comes to greenhouse-gas emissions, we cannot only look at the current situation and ignore history, nor look at overall emissions and ignore per capita figures. China’s accumulated emissions account for only 7% of the global total. Emissions are caused by consumption of energy, and this is the foundation of social development. As a Chinese person, I cannot accept someone from a developed nation having more right than me to consume energy. We are all created equal – this is no empty slogan. The Americans have no right to tell the Chinese that they can only consume 20% as much energy. We do not want to pollute as they did, but we have the right to pursue a better life.
"Some EU nations have done well on emissions reductions, but the United States, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Spain and Italy have not just failed to make cuts – they have significantly increased their emissions. And they do not seem to feel they have done anything wrong."

I'm not saying that China are climate heroes or that their actions didn't help to derail Copenhagen (see here for one eyewitness account). I am simply saying that the moral argument (widely accepted for some time (at least in some form) in international climate negotiations) that developed nations ought to be bear a much greater burden than developing nations, is a good argument. This argument is widely misunderstood, not strongly supported (see link in main post), and has been actively undermined by some countries in recent months, which I think is both irresponsible and sets back negotiations.

MWW - Thanks for the encouragement. My head's getting pretty thick from all the brick walls I've been introducing it to, and you're right that it's tiring. I guess I felt that (at least in the Christian circles with which I'm most familiar) these issues are some of the largest theological and ethical blind-spots and I want to do what I can to lead in repentance and renewed attention.

Roland and Laura said...

That's a great quote. It has some horrible lacunae (not the least of which being the assumption that the emissions-heavy industrialization of the West is the only option for developing countries), but you're right in respecting his ability to put forward the "moral argument", which is very compelling.

BTW, I was thinking about your project yesterday (what little I know of it from this blog), and this book came to mind: Charles Miller, "The Gift of the World: An Introduction to the Theology of Dumitru Staniloae" (T&T International, 2001). If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it as an excellent attempt to bring Eastern Orthodox theology to bear on environmental issues. It's also the only attempt I've ever seen. You might find it interesting.

Keep up the good work!

byron smith said...

Thanks for the tip, I'll check it out.

byron smith said...

Visual information: cumulative emissions by country from 1751 to 2006.