China uses half the world's coal, but we still need to lead on climate change

It's no use waiting for developing nations to make the first move. We'll fiddle while Rome drowns.

Noah Smith highlights a worrying — if not unexpected — trend: Chinese coal usage is approaching that of the rest of the world combined.

Take a look at this chart, from the Guardian's Adam Vaughn:

Smith writes:

If China and the other developing nations cook the world, the world is cooked, no matter what America or any other country does. China et al. can probably cook the world without our help, because global warming has "threshold effects" (tipping points), and because carbon stays in the air for thousands of years.

Bottom line: We will only save the planet if China (and other developing countries) stop burning so much coal. Any policy action we take to avert global warming will be ineffective unless it accomplishes this task.

Focusing on coal use distorts the picture somewhat. One of the reasons western nations don't use as much coal is because its extraordinarily polluting in ways unrelated to its carbon emissions. Particulates from burning coal cause all manner of respiratory problems, and the radiation levels around coal plants are frequently higher than they are around nuclear plants.

It's not surprising, therefore, that countries that can afford to — or which value the health of their populations more than China does — have largely switched energy generation to other fossil fuels, particularly gas (and that was true even before the shale gas boom in the US). We also can't ignore that other major sources of CO2, like transport and aviation, remain dominated by the West. OECD nations are responsible for two thirds of automobile emissions, and that is expected to stay relatively stable until 2050 at least.

So there's actually a fair amount which the West needs to do to tackle climate change. It's certainly not the case, for instance, that if China and India got their houses in order then we could carry on as before.

But neither is the opposite the case. Smith is correct: without action from the developing world, the developed world's fight against climate change is moot. But I'm not sure that presents as deadly a proposition as he thinks.

For one thing, it remains the case now that China exports goods and services — but mainly goods — worth $200bn a month. A carbon tax levied by the recipients of those exports would impose a massive incentive on the country to cut emissions. Smith is right that the developing world economy is growing, but that's just an argument for moving quickly.

More problematically, the "one thing" that Smith thinks would work — "develop[ing] renewable technologies that are substantially cheaper than coal, and giv[ing] these technologies to the developing countries" — falls prey to the problem of all that tempting energy underground. Cheap renewables in China are just as likely to be used to boost energy production as to replace fossil fuels. And having renewable technologies which are cheaper than coal is quite a long way off, particularly ones which are scaleable to the extent that they can replace Chinese production.

But what I've been told is that the Chinese state isn't necessarily adverse to following the lead of the West in cutting carbon emissions, so long as its clear that we actually are doing it to fight climate change. That's an argument for installing carbon capture and sequestration technology, for instance, because that's something which has no other purpose. Of course, such technology needs to improve its efficiency — both in how much carbon it can scrub, how long it can store it, and how much it costs to do — but to do so would send an unequivocal message that the fight was one we wanted part of.

The worst thing of all would be to use the argument that that "there's no point in us acting without them" to sit back and wait for developing nations to make the first move. Because it's just not going to happen.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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