China - new number one climate polluter?

Feature Story - 2007-06-21
According to a new study, China's carbon dioxide emissions last year were the largest in the world. But responsibility for China's soaring emissions lies not just in Beijing but also in Washington, Brussels and Tokyo.

Chinese pedestrian wears a mask to protect herself from thick pollution as she walks her dog in central Beijing December 3, 2004. Beijingers have been warned to stay indoors as heavy pollution has covered the city for three days. With its energy shortage reaching crisis levels, China is furiously building new coal-fired power plants, reversing years of improvements in pollution control.

The study, released today by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, says that in 2006 China produced 6,200m tonnes of CO2 pollution, compared with 5,800m tonnes from the US, which has long been the world's top climate polluter.

One reason for China's massive CO2 emissions is that over the years, the West has effectively exported a great portion of it's manufacturing there.  No environmental conditions were attached to this manufacturing move, and today we see the result.

"The only thing corporations were interested in was the price of labour," said Greenpeace UK executive director John Sauven on his blog. "This trend kept the price of our products and inflation down, but at the cost of soaring greenhouse gas emissions in China. In the long term, this policy has been a climate disaster. It's the downside of globalisation."

No excuses for China

Coal accounts for 69 per cent of the primary energy in China - 42 per cent higher than the world's average.  And China is beginning to realise the consequences of burning fossil fuels, not least because it is already suffering serious impacts from climate change including worsening typhoons, desertification and melting glaciers.

"To develop in a cleaner way is possible," said Ailun Yang, Greenpeace China Climate and Energy Campaign Manager. "China has to decouple its economic development from the consumption of polluting fossil fuels.  The Chinese government needs to raise the development ambitions for renewable energies and implement its binding energy efficiency targets."

At the beginning of June, China's National Climate Change Programme outlined measures China would take to combat climate change. This at least shows that the Chinese government acknowledges the problems of climate change as well as the responsibility of China to help tackling these problems.  However, the biggest problem with the National Programme, as with government programmes everywhere, is the actual implementation of its targets.

"Greenpeace urges governments at all levels in China to implement the National Plan on Climate Change," said Yang.

No excuses for anyone

Per capita the US remains the world's worst number one CO2 polluter.  On average, people in China are responsible for 3.5 tonnes of CO2 each per year, whereas in the UK it's nearly 10 tonnes and for North Americans it's 20 tonnes.  The G8 (world's richest nations) are also responsible for over 80 percent of the climate change we are experiencing today, and still emit over 40 percent of all global emissions.

"If we are to protect the global climate every help must be given to assist China to clean up its act. They put in the right supportive policy. We have the technology. The two must be put together," concluded Sauven. "But we also have to examine our consumption binge of cheap Chinese products made in factories dependent on very polluting forms of energy."

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