Fact check: how much responsibility does China have for climate change? | Knowledge & Environment | DW

“China is the greatest destroyer of the planet”, “China is the worst country when it comes to pollution”, “China is to blame” – these are sentences that keep coming up in debates on climate change on social networks. But what role does China actually play?

Since 2008, China has been in first place ahead of the USA with its annual emissions of the greenhouse gas CO2, according to the data on the “Our World in Data” site, on which the University of Oxford is involved. In 2019, China emitted 10.2 billion tons of CO2, almost twice as much as the US (5.3 billion tons). That corresponded to almost 28 percent of global emissions.

But net emissions alone are not enough to blame China for climate change. “If you look at just one number, you only see one side of the story,” says Shyla Raghav, vice president of the US-based environmental organization Conservation International.

Carbon dioxide emissions per capita show a different picture

To get a different insight, it is worth looking at carbon dioxide emissions per capita. If you combine the data from 2019 from the “Global Carbon Project” and those from “Our World in Data”, numerous Caribbean island and Gulf states top the list. The USA ranks 14th with a good 16 tons of CO2 per inhabitant. At 7.1 tonnes, China emits less than half of this per capita, putting it in 48th place.

Infographic CO2 emissions by country 2019

But even that is only a snapshot. When it comes to carbon dioxide, it is important to know that the gas can remain in the atmosphere for an extremely long time from a human perspective: the entire degradation process takes several hundred thousand years, according to the Federal Environment Agency. Oceans or forests can absorb some of the gas very quickly. But a good 40 percent of the CO2 emitted by humans since 1850 has remained in the atmosphere, according to the international study “Global Carbon Budget”, in which Robbie Andrew, scientist at the climate research institute CICERO in Norway, was involved.

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Historic issues crucial

In order to look at the causes of man-made climate change, according to both experts, it is important to take a look at the so-called historical emissions. It becomes clear: China is – as of 2019 – the second largest emitter, but has emitted 220 billion tons since 1750, only slightly more than half as much CO2 as the USA (410 billion tons). Germany’s historical emissions account for 92 billion tonnes, putting it in fourth place behind Russia and ahead of Great Britain.

Infographic of all CO2 emissions DE

China also started producing significant amounts of CO2 much later, Andrew explains: “The emissions only started to rise significantly from around 2001, when China joined the World Trade Organization and thereby gained access to world markets, which drove the economic upswing. But we did a problem with greenhouse gases in the atmosphere before China stepped on the scene. ” Or to put it in other words of the scientist: “In fact, China did not create the problem.”

Producer vs. consumer

There is one other point that is neglected in standard statistics, but plays a role in the question of responsibility. Think how many of the items you own are labeled “Made in China”? The water heater? The plastic chair in the garden? The laptop? The greenhouse gases emitted in their production are the responsibility of China and not your country’s. Even though you use the product. Statistics are usually recorded according to the producer principle, not the consumer principle.

Part of globalization is that countries in the global north in particular have outsourced production processes. If you take that into account, the picture shifts.

Infographic How trade affects the carbon footprint

A few examples: Germany’s CO2 balance in 2018 was around 14 percent higher according to the consumer principle than according to the producer principle, in the USA it was 6.3 percent. Incidentally, the front runners would be Malta and Switzerland with a plus of 248 and 225 percent. China, on the other hand, is one of the CO2 exporters. If the statistics are adjusted for the emissions for products that go abroad, the Chinese carbon footprint drops by ten percent.

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As Robbie Andrew explains, this effect was even greater for China almost 15 years ago. In the mid-2000s, export goods were responsible for around a fifth of Chinese emissions. Andrew expects this phenomenon to become less important for China in the future, as “the share of the Chinese economy that produces for export will decrease”.

At the beginning of the year, three scientists from Dutch and German research institutions proposed a concept according to which the responsibility for CO2 emissions should be divided between consumer and producer according to the economic benefit.

Are we looking at all aspects?

And since we are already talking about globalization: international shipping and air traffic usually do not appear in the statistics of individual countries, but are listed separately. For the transport of your laptop, neither the CO2 budget of China nor your country is burdened.

When we talk about responsibility for climate change, is the nation-state perhaps not the right benchmark? Means of transport have a significant share of emissions. In 2018, all shipping traffic was responsible for around 2.9 percent of man-made CO2 emissions. The share of civil aviation was similarly high in 2019, at just over two percent.

Shyla Raghav from Conservation International thinks that the state model has its weaknesses, but she also points out: “The challenge is, what would be the alternative?”

A loaded container ship is lashed to a quay wall, with large cranes and stacked containers standing next to it

A container terminal in Shenzhen – ship transports make a decisive contribution to global CO2 emissions

The question still remains: When it comes to the question of responsibility for climate change, are we concentrating too much on CO2 as a greenhouse gas? No, both experts agree, since carbon dioxide has the largest share in the warming of our planet. “The CO2 values ​​are a good guide to all emissions,” says Raghav. Nonetheless, both believe that other gases should not be ignored when it comes to mitigating climate change in the future. An important role is played by methane, which is produced, among other things, in agricultural processes – for example by the famous puffing and belching cows – or which can escape during fracking and oil production.

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Bottom line: it’s complicated

Back to the starting point. “We really can’t give China all the responsibility,” says Shyla Raghav of Conservation International. But China, as the largest emitter, is now playing a crucial role in appropriately distributing responsibility in the fight against warming.

For Robbie Andrew from CICERO, however, the question of responsibility for climate change cannot only be answered from the bare numbers, but is also about another level, about normative questions: “Could China have developed differently? How would China look like, if it hadn’t used all the coal that was available? ” Or could one blame China for not having abundant opportunities geographically to use clean hydropower? “The question of responsibility and guilt is very complex,” concludes Andrew. After all, China has set itself the goal of being CO2 neutral by 2060.

This article is part of a series in which DW subjects myths about climate change to a fact check.

Also read:

Part 1 – Is Global Warming a Natural Process?

Part 2 – How crucial are 0.5 degrees more global warming?


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