DW inspects: How much responsibility does China bear on climate change? | Science and Ecology | DW

China currently emits more carbon dioxide than any other country. From this we can conclude that China bears the greatest responsibility for climate change, but the situation is more complex.

“China is the biggest destroyer on the planet,” “China is the worst polluter,” “China is to blame,” phrases that still pop up in discussions about climate change on social networks. But what role does China really play?

Since 2008, China has ranked first ahead of the United States in its annual CO2 emissions, according to data from the Our World in Data page, which Oxford University shares with. In 2019, China emitted more than 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide, nearly twice that of the United States (5.3 billion tons). This equates to approximately 28 percent of global emissions.

But net emissions alone are not enough to blame China for climate change. “If you just look at the numbers, you’ll only see one side of the story,” Sheila Raghav, vice president of the US-based conservation organization, told DW.

Per capita carbon dioxide emissions show a different picture

To get a different point of view, it is worth considering per capita carbon dioxide emissions. If you combined 2019 data from the Global Carbon Project and Our World in Data, many Caribbean islands and Gulf states would top the list. The United States ranks 14th, with approximately 16 tons of carbon dioxide per capita. At 7.1 tons, China emits less than half of this individual, placing it at number 48.

But even this is just a snapshot. In the case of carbon dioxide, it’s important to know that from a human perspective, the gas can remain in the atmosphere for a long time — the whole process taking several hundred thousand years, according to the Federal Environment Agency. Oceans or forests can absorb some of the gas very quickly. But 40 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted by humans since 1850 has remained in the atmosphere, according to the international study “The Global Carbon Budget,” which was co-authored by Robbie Andrew, a scientist at the CICERO Institute for Climate Research in Norway.

Historical emissions are critical

To analyze the causes of man-made climate change, according to both experts, it is important to look at the so-called “historical emissions”. Thus China, as of 2019, is clearly the second largest emitter, but has released 220 billion tons since 1750, which is just over half of the carbon dioxide in the United States (410 billion tons). Germany’s historical emissions are 92 billion tons, which makes it fourth after Russia and ahead of Great Britain.

China also began producing large amounts of carbon dioxide later, Andrew explains: “Emissions began to increase dramatically since around 2001, when China joined the World Trade Organization and thus gained access to global markets, which led to a recovery But we actually got the problem of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere before China came on the scene.” Or in other words: “Indeed, China did not create the problem.”

Our purchases of Chinese laptops and computers are not recorded in the CO2 emissions statistics.

Our purchases of Chinese laptops and computers are not recorded in the CO2 emissions statistics.

opposite producers. consumers

There is another important point in this that does not rise to the level of standardized statistics, but plays a role in the question of responsibility. Do you think how many things you own are labeled “Made in China”? boiler? The plastic chair in the garden? your laptop? The greenhouse gases released to make it go to China’s expense, not your country, despite your use of these products, statistics are generally compiled on the basis of a product principle, not a consumer principle.

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Part of globalization is that the countries of the North of the world, in particular, have overseas production processes. If this is taken into account, the image is modified.

Some examples: Germany’s carbon footprint in 2018 was about 14 percent higher on a consumer basis than on a product basis. In the United States, the rate was 6.3 percent. By the way, the first country ranked will be Malta and Switzerland, with an increase of 248 and 225 percent. China, on the other hand, is one of the CO2 exporters. If the statistics are adjusted for emissions from products shipped abroad, China’s carbon footprint is reduced by ten percent.

This, not to mention international navigation and air traffic, which generally do not appear in the statistics of different countries, but are prepared separately. To move a laptop, the CO2 budget is not shipped to your country or China.

When we talk about responsibility for climate change, perhaps the state will not ultimately be the correct standard. Transportation has a significant share in emissions. In 2018, all shipping traffic was responsible for about 2.9 percent of human-caused carbon dioxide emissions. The share of civil aviation was similarly high in 2019, just over two percent.

Sheila Raghav of Conservation International thinks the state model has weaknesses, but also points out: “What would the alternative be?” Another question is whether the focus in terms of climate change is too much on carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. Experts say no, because this gas is the main responsible for the warming of our planet. But there are other gases, such as methane, that arise from agricultural and animal processes, or from hydraulic fracturing and oil extraction.

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Conclusion: It’s complicated

Back to where we started: “We can’t really give China full responsibility,” says Conservation International’s Sheila Raghav. But China, as the largest emitter, is now playing a crucial role in properly sharing the responsibility in the fight against global warming.

For CICERO’s Robbie Andrew, the question of responsibility for climate change cannot be answered only with abstract numbers, but there is another level at play as well, on normative questions: “Can China develop accordingly? What would China look like if it had It has not used all the available coal, or can China be blamed for the lack of abundant geographic opportunities to use clean hydropower? The question of responsibility and blame is very complex,” Andrew concludes. After all, China has set a goal of being CO2 neutral by 2060.


Aileen Morales

"Beer nerd. Food fanatic. Alcohol scholar. Tv practitioner. Writer. Troublemaker. Falls down a lot."

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