Why China’s carbon emissions may not matter

Critics argue the UK's green efforts can not compensate for China's rising emissions, they are guilty of selling the country short

13 Feb 2013, 00:05

Is there a more fatuous, ill-informed and illogical criticism of the green economy than the accusation that China's immense carbon footprint makes other nations' attempts to curb their emissions pointless? If there is I'd like to hear it. Actually, scrap that, I would not like to hear it.

You will no doubt be aware of the "China trope" that has been pushed remorselessly by critics of the green economy in recent months. It comes in many different shades, but it essentially boils down to the tired argument that "the world does not have a climate change problem, it has a Chinese coal problem". The emerging superpower's reliance on dirty coal to power its economic miracle is so pronounced and its emissions are rising so fast that attempts by the UK, the rest of Europe, even the US, to curb their greenhouse gas emissions are doomed to failure because they will never be able to compensate for China (and to a slightly lesser extent India's) spiralling carbon emissions.

Leaving aside the fact that this argument is often presented by people who do not think greenhouse gas emissions cause climate change (I do sometimes wonder why they concern themselves with China's carbon footprint when they don't think it is a problem), there is undoubted truth in the contention China's coal industry represents a grave threat to the global climate. No attempt to resolve the climate crisis will succeed without tackling the fast-increasing emissions of China and other emerging economies. In case you had not guessed, the headline to this post is wilfully provocative - in many respects China's carbon emissions matter immensely.

But the suggestion that the challenge presented by China's economy makes green policies in countries such as the UK pointless or in some way doomed to failure is an argument of such stunning irrelevance that it falls apart on the most cursory of examinations.

The most widely adopted response to the "China argument" is that it is based on the false assumption China is not trying to do something about its unsustainable coal habit. Both David Cameron and Ed Davey have offered an eloquent summation of this counter-argument in recent weeks, noting that the UK is in a "global race" where numerous rivals, including China, are investing heavily in clean technologies and green energy. As Davey observed yesterday, "those who advocate the view that "no one else is doing anything, so why should we" have not opened their eyes to the real world".

He could have quoted reams of evidence to demonstrate how China is the world's leading investor in wind energy, among the leading investors in solar, nuclear, and CCS, and boasts some of the tightest fuel efficiency standards and ambitious clean car programmes on the planet. China's leaders, for all their myriad faults, understand the importance of green growth - and if they didn't before, the worsening smog crisis afflicting the country's capital has certainly hammered the point home.

The suggestion that China is in reality striving to tackle the climate crisis is complemented by the ethical argument that the UK and other industrialised nations have a responsibility for emerging economies' emissions. Numerous studies have noted the recent decline in emissions in Europe and the US has been aided by the migration of dirty industries to emerging economies - China's emissions are rising, in part, because the country is manufacturing goods for us in the West. We have both a moral and an environmental responsibility to develop the technologies that will allow China and its peers to decarbonise.

Both of these arguments are compelling enough, but they are also slightly flawed. Because while it is evident emerging economies are trying to drive green growth, businesses and NGOs cannot credibly argue China and co are yet doing enough to tackle climate change. Emissions are continuing to rise at a rapid pace and Chinese coal power plants are one of the primary causes of this deeply worrying acceleration. As long as this remains the case, contrarians will continue to argue against UK action to tackle climate change with a weary "what is the point?"

As such those arguing that UK efforts to tackle emissions are pointless should be engaged with on their own terms, not with a quibbling over the facts relating to Chinese energy policy. Thankfully, their arguments are not just factually wrong, they are also just plain daft.

Consider, if you will, precisely what those advocating the scrapping of the UK's green ambitions on the grounds that China's emissions are continuing to rise are calling for. They are essentially saying that we should not try and develop the solutions to a global problem, because there is a global problem. It is like telling the Silicon Valley whizzkids of the 1970s "there's no point inventing these new computers, because no one in China will be able to use them". Or telling the British industrialists of the 19th Century, "don't bother investing in new infrastructure, it costs too much and your competitors overseas aren't doing it".

It is the policy embodiment of Henry Ford's famous old assertion that "if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses".

There are legitimate arguments to be had about carbon leakage and how best to manage the transition to a low carbon economy in a manner that minimises short term impacts for established industries. Equally there is a lot of work to be done on how the roll out of clean technologies in a handful of pioneer economies can be replicated globally in a few short decades. But the suggestion that the UK should not pursue green growth because emissions in other countries are continuing to rise is plainly ridiculous.

It not only fails to take account of the kindergarten ethics lesson that states just because someone else is doing something bad does not mean you should as well, it also completely ignores the way in which cultural, economic, and technological transitions happen. The industrial revolution, the post war consumer revolution, the IT revolution, they all started around breakthroughs in a handful of regional and national hubs that demonstrated the benefits of the new technologies and business models, before paving the way for a global roll out. Are those who argue against the UK's green ambitions really so insecure about our place in the world that they do not think us capable of fulfilling this vital role?

The debate about the UK's green policies should be about how we become one of these green economy hubs, not whether or not our efforts are capable of countering China's emissions. Not least, because if we get it right and demonstrate that sustainable green growth is both possible and attractive China will look after itself as clean technologies, many of them pioneered in the UK, become the new normal.

And in that respect at least, China's carbon emissions do not matter.

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Previously known as the BusinessGreen Blog, James' Blog features musings, observations and occasional rants from BusinessGreen editor James Murray

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