In recent years, China has emitted more carbon dioxide than any other country, except the United States (see Figure 1). Furthermore, Chinese emissions will soon overtake even the US, on a per country basis. Policy debates over emission reductions, particularly in the US, often focus on the need to include China in any effort. Why would the US (or any other country) begin to reduce emissions unless the Chinese take similar actions?
One reason is that the Chinese are in an earlier stage of economic development than the US and other developed countries. This becomes clear if we look at total historical emissions (see Figure 2) rather than exclusively focusing on the recent years. Viewed this way, the Chinese still have some catching up to do before they match US emissions.
More importantly, a focus on country level emissions is highly misleading because it doesn’t account for vastly different population sizes.
Even in the recent years, the average person living in the United States has emitted around 6 times more than the average Chinese citizen (see in Figure 3). The high country-wide emissions from China come from a relatively low (but rapidly rising) level of per capita emissions combined with a huge population.
Should we think of emissions in per country or per person terms?
Simple comparisons between countries don’t make sense if you believe in personal responsibility and individual liberty. (NB: if you support government that is of, by, and for the people, you may sacrifice consistency by ignoring individuals and treating nations as collective units). Focusing exclusively on national emissions implies that citizenship alone determines how much an individual gets to emit.
Taken to the extreme, a focus on country-wide emissions means that China (or any country) could reduce its emissions by simply dividing itself in to several smaller countries. These smaller countries would each have lower emissions, but there would be no change in emissions overall.
Unfortunately, the focus on per country emissions distracts from the very real problems that we face with all emitters, including China. I see four major obstacles that thoughtful climate policies must contend with. First, all countries will ultimately need to constrain and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Policies must encourage all countries to cooperate. Second, some businesses in those nations that do the most to reduce emissions may face disadvantages relative to their competitors who happen to be in nations that do the least. Third, if we aren’t careful emissions could simply shift from countries that seek to aggressively curb them to those nations that choose a wait-and-see approach. Finally, excluding major emitters (in per country terms) like China from solutions creates major political obstacles for nations eager to adopt policy options (see our general overview of societal options here).
We must focus on these real obstacles without being sidetracked by misleading arguments that ignore population sizes when comparing different countries’ emissions. Thoughtful unilateral action by individual nations can encourage other nations to join policy efforts and overcome the obstacles. Having characterized the problems with this post, I’ll talk about some those solutions next time. Stay tuned.