activism climate change

Why climate change action still matters in developed countries

Earlier this year I went through an editorial in The Times, on the subject of climate change and Extinction Rebellion. To me it seemed to encapsulate conservative thinking on the climate, from uncertainty about the science to the centrality of ‘green growth’.

The Times also made very clear that it considered developing countries to be the main problem. “The country mostly responsible for carbon emissions is not Britain, indeed it is a leader in cutting them” says the paper. “Action by British governments has only a negligible effect on climate, biodiversity and the state of the oceans.” Instead, protestors should focus on the US, China and India. Activists should go and protest outside embassies, not bother ordinary people in the streets.

Boris Johnson, apparently Prime Minister at the moment, makes the same point. “Here in the UK we are a world leader in reducing the greenhouse gases that are associated with climate change” he wrote in his Telegraph column in April. “Surely this is the time for the protesters to take their pink boat to Tiananmen Square, and lecture them in the way they have been lecturing us.”

You’ll have heard this before no doubt. It comes up in every public discussion of climate change. The fastest growing sources of CO2 are in the developing world, someone will object. The majority of emissions since 1990 have been in emerging nations such as China and India. That someone is correct:

However, there are five big reasons why that argument is superficial.

1. Asia is big. This should be obvious, but when you reconsider the graph above with the distribution of the world’s population in mind, it’s not surprising at all. Almost 60% of humanity is in Asia. We would expect Asia to be responsible for the majority of emissions, no? The only reason that hasn’t been the case in the past is that most people had low carbon footprints because they were poorer. Which leads me to point two.

2. Individual footprints matter. China gets a bad press for being the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, but on the ground, the footprints of ordinary Chinese people are not excessive. Emissions are concentrated among the richest elite and in the cities. Out in rural areas where the majority of Chinese people live, average footprints are 0.6-1.7 tonnes per person per year. That’s modest by global standards – a quarter of an average European footprint and a sixth of an American’s.

Those are footprints based on household consumption, ie the way people actually live. When you divide China’s total emissions by the population, it looks much worse, and that’s because of point three.

3. Developed countries have outsourced their emissions. Traffic of manufactured goods mainly flows from East to West, which means the emissions from our clothes, gadgets and household items all occur in Asia. Emissions are counted in the country of production, not consumption, so the more things are manufactured overseas and imported, the more carbon emissions we shift off our tab and onto somebody elses. This is why there is a discrepancy between per capita emissions in China and the footprints of ordinary people – a chunk of China’s emissions are actually ours. “In effect,” say the authors of a study into exported emissions, “China has reduced our carbon footprint.”

4. Historical emissions. You won’t hear anything about historical emissions from Boris Johnson or the Times – but you will from China or India. “It was you, the richest nations, that put us all in this delicate position,” as an Indian representative told the Davos conference in 2007. “You have been burning increasing amounts of coal and oil for more than a century.”

By industrialising first, developed nations were polluting the atmosphere long before Asia and Africa started building coal power stations. Focusing on the share of emissions now obscures the cumulative effect of greenhouse gases, and who is most responsible overall. If you haven’t seen it already, here’s a video summary from Carbon Brief:

5. Emerging nations aren’t doing nothing. When blaming other countries, it is easy to speak in generalities about what is or isn’t being done about the breakdown of the climate. But not all ’emerging’ nations are the same. Brazil may be burning the forests and scrapping environmental regulation, but India has a major reforestation plan that aims to more than double the country’s forest cover.

Often our views are out of date or selective – take the old chestnut about China opening a new coal power station a week. That may have been true in 2005, but it isn’t now. And while you hear grumbling about China and coal, how often do you hear that China switches on a new wind turbine every hour? Or that 99% of the world’s electric buses are in China?

In summary, yes – emissions have risen spectacularly in emerging nations and China in particular. But responsibility for climate change is much more complicated than who has the biggest carbon footprint at this exact moment in time, or where in the world emissions are rising and falling. We have to consider how ordinary people actually live and how much they consume. Historical legacies place a greater responsibilty on countries that have been industrialised for a long time.

We can’t park responsibilty for climate change with the emerging nations, but neither can the climate crisis be resolved in Britain or in the west. Britain could knock its emissions to zero by 2050 as planned, or 2025 as some suggest, and make a negligible impact on the global climate. As I’ve explained before, our future depends on what happens in China and India. Actions in China may change the world, or doom it to destruction. With India still poorer than China but with a huge population, the development path that India chooses is just as important. And of course we’re all doomed if America continues to be a climate pariah.

So what is Britain’s role in this? What’s the point of movements like Extinction Rebellion in Britain?

I think there are several reasons why radical action in Britain makes sense. First, every percentage point matters. Reaching net zero, as the business secretary said at the announcement of the 2050 target, will “end the UK’s contribution to global warming entirely”. Then we have to take responsibility for those historical emissions, which is why we should move that target forward – Tim Jackson argues that an ethical climate target would be 2030 or sooner.

What we do in Britain will also influence what happens abroad. Not because we ‘lead’ the world, a popular delusion among British politicians, but because global cooperation relies on give and take. If developed nations aren’t willing to change, they have no basis to expect others to do so.

To take a practical example, many of us are annoyed at Brazil for its cavalier approach to the Amazon, which we all rely on as a major carbon sink. But president Bolsonaro would be perfectly entitled to look at Britain with its 13% forest cover, and ask who we are to complain. We took all the economic benefits of clearing our own forests for agriculture centuries ago, and now we want to prevent others from doing the same thing.

Similarly, who is Germany to lecture India on coal power? How can we accuse African mothers of having too many children when every extra British person has 20 times the environmental impact? Unless footprints are reduced in developed countries, we haven’t got a leg to stand on.

When Britain takes action, it can argue much more persuasively for action from others. That includes making climate policy a vital element of trade policy, which is probably the only way to bring in free riders like the US, Russia or Saudi Arabia.

What’s more, the actions of citizens in one country can also inspire action in others. A dynamic climate movement in Britain can build global solidarity with movements in countries that could make much more of a difference in absolute terms. Global problems are not solved by individual countries. They are solved globally, and a global people power movement is one of our best hopes for real change.


  1. The Times is right: although developing countries may not be the only problem, they’re certainly the main problem. Here’s why:

    Last year’s IPCC special report ( stated (SPM-15) that to get to “no or limited overshoot of 1.5ºC” (and thereby avoid serious risks to natural and human systems) requires a “net anthropogenic CO2 emissions decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030”. In 2010, global emissions were 34 gigatons (Gt) of CO2 – data here: Therefore, to meet the IPCC’s requirement, they would have to be reduced to about 19 Gt by 2030.

    In 2017 (see data above) developed countries’ emissions were 14 Gt and developing countries were 23 Gt (note that both probably increased in 2018:

    What reductions are feasible by 2030?

    Well, I’ll assume that developed countries (except Russia and Japan which, for very different reasons, show no interest in emission reduction) will be able to cut current emissions by 50% – despite the difficulties and hardships involved, such as less travel (especially by air), less consumption, no more electronic toys from Asia, higher taxes, expensive replacements for domestic, commercial, industrial and public sector gas heating and internal combustion powered vehicles, risks of power cuts and/or blackouts, abolition of many planning restrictions…etc. Based on 2017 figures, that would bring developed countries’ emissions down to about 8 Gt.

    That in turn would mean that, to meet the IPCC requirement, developing countries’ emissions would have to come down from 23 Gt to 11 Gt – a 52% cut.** But, not only is that not going to happen, the reality is that developing countries’ emissions are likely to increase – for a host of legitimate reasons. For example, developing countries comprise about 82% of humanity’s growing population and all its poorest people; although fossil fuels have enabled these countries to lift about one billion people out of abject poverty, many of these people are still very poor and, in any case, millions remain in abject poverty. Moreover, developing country governments and their huge populations are, quite understandably, keen to emulate Western economic pre-eminence and standards of living and have found that access to the reliable, affordable electric power afforded by fossil fuels makes it possible for them to do so. That’s why developing country negotiators insisted (a) that the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change included a provision (Article 4.7) establishing their right to give “first and overriding” priority to “economic and social development and poverty eradication” and (b) that the 2015 Paris Agreement, having confirmed this, stated (Article 4.4) merely that developing countries “are encouraged to move over time towards economy-wide emission reduction or limitation targets” – i.e. nothing about a requirement to cut emissions. Commentators in the West commonly say that these agreements are weak or inadequate. But that’s not how they’re seen elsewhere: they suit developing countries very well.

    So yes, when it comes to emission reduction, the developing countries are indeed the main problem: their likely actions would make the IPCC target unachievable. But, although those actions may cause environmental damage, the reasons for them are legitimate and understandable.

    ** Note: the above considerations would apply even if the Western democracies, by some miracle, were able to move the target forward and cut their emissions by 100% by 2030. Developing countries would still have to cut theirs by 30% within the same period if humanity is to meet the IPCC’s requirement. And, for the reasons stated above, that wouldn’t happen: these countries are not going to allow their economies to slow down nor to keep so many of their people in poverty.

    PS: I’ve said nothing above about per capita emissions, outsourced emissions and historical emissions because, although these are interesting topics, nothing arising from their consideration would affect the conclusion of my comment. However, I will say something about them in a later response.

    1. Okay, I’ve given my arguments, you’ve given yours. I think you’re missing point five and the fact that many developing countries know how vulnerable they are to climate change and are acting. But I’m not going to get into a long debate about it.

      1. My response to your comment that had overlooked your point five has disappeared into “moderation”. I expect that’s because you “don’t want to get into a long debate about it”. If so, that’s fair enough – it’s your blog. But I hope you’ll allow me simply to note that, in response to your comment and particularly its example from India, I cited five 2019 articles showing that India is expanding its already large coal-fired power capacity

  2. You say: “many developing countries know how vulnerable they are to climate change and are acting.”

    If that were true about the major developing countries, it would be a game-changer. But am aware of no evidence for it. In contrast, there is abundant evidence to the contrary. You cite India, so I’ll provide a few recent examples from there:

    “Coal, which currently supplies nearly 75 percent of India’s electricity, is expected to satisfy most of India’s increased power needs, with the rest supplied by oil and natural gas”

    “India’s thermal coal output seen growing 4.3% annually till 2028”

    “India expects coal-fired power capacity to grow by 22% in three years.”

    “52 coal mines opened in 5 years to fuel power drive”

    The following, I believe, sets out how major developing countries view the West and the climate issue:

    “Without energy you have nothing. China and India understand this better than the west since their citizenry and leaders view energy through the lens of what will help over two-billion-combined-citizens; join the prosperous, western, consumer-driven world…. Naïve-thinking, bordering on western suicide, believes China and India will stop using fossil fuels, led by coal. Each country understands coal is plentiful (“estimated 1.1 trillion tonnes of proven coal reserves worldwide that at current rates of production will last 150 years”), and it is scalable, reliable, cost-effective to the end user, and has the best energy density of all fossil fuels or renewables available.”

    1. Sure, and I could reply with five links showing things changing in India. Such as the fact that India will sell only electric cars by 2030. Or that if it meets its 2022 target it will have more renewable energy installed than anyone in the world except China and the US. Besides, solar is now cheaper than coal in most of China and India. Economics is working against coal and the change will not be linear and predictable.

      So I don’t really recognise your reading of the issues.

      1. You’re right: China and India are investing massively in electric vehicles (not because of climate change but because of dreadful urban pollution). But those vehicles are – and will be – using electricity derived largely from thermal (essentially coal) power. As for renewable energy – yes India will have a lot. But nothing like as much as their thermal energy (see my links above). Solar may perhaps be cheaper, but – unlike coal – it’s of little use at night or when the sun is obscured.

        So Jeremy, I don’t really recognise your reading of the issues. I could expand on this – but why not leave it on the basis of an agreement to disagree?

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