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.