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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Does the UK care enough about climate change to admit it is part of the problem?

The government’s energy policies make can make it hard to decipher its commitment to emissions reduction.

“People tell me it’s ridiculous to be flying for a climate change project but you have to get real with it, I mean I can’t cycle across the Southern ocean,” says Daniel Price, an environmental scientist from London. As founder of Pole-to-Paris, Price is about to complete a 17,000km bike ride from the Antarctic to the Arc de Triomphe.

Price came up with the idea in an effort to raise public awareness of COP21, the UN Climate Change Conference taking place in Paris next week. During the trip he’s faced a succession of set-backs: from the discovery that boats were prohibitively expensive, to diplomatic tensions scuppering his Russian visa plans. Yet the darkest moments were when he became overwhelmed by the magnitude of his own mission. “There were difficult times when I just thought, ‘What is the point of this’?” he says. “Cycling round the world is nowhere near enough to engage people.” 

As world leaders descend on Paris, many questions remain unanswered. Not least how much support developing nations will receive in tackling the effects of climate change. New research commissioned by Oxfam claims that such costs could rise to £1.7tn a year by 2050. But with cuts kicking in at home, the need to deliver “climate justice” abroad feels like a bigger ask than ever.

So does Britain really care enough about climate change to accept its full part in this burden? The government’s energy policies make can make it hard to decipher its commitment to emissions reduction. In September, however, it did pledge £5.8bn from the foreign aid fund to helping poorer nations combat climate change (twice that promised by China and the United States). And there’s evidence to suggest that we, as a public, may also care more than we think.

In America attitudes are much darker; in the dismissive words of Donald Trump “It’s called the weather”. Not least since, as a recent study proves, over the last twenty years corporations have systematically spread scepticism about the science. “The contrarian efforts have been so effective," says the author Justin Farrell, a Yale sociologist, "that they have made it difficult for ordinary Americans to even know who to trust.” 

And what about in China, the earth's biggest polluter? Single-party rule and the resulting lack of public discussion would seem to be favouring action on the environment. The government has recently promised to reach "peak" emissions by 2030, to quadruple solar installations, and to commit $3.1bn to help low-income countries adapt to the changing world. Christiana Figueres, the UN’s chief climate official, has even lauded the country for taking “undisputed leadership” on climate change mitigation.

Yet this surge of policy could mask the most troubling reality of all: that, when it comes to climate change, the Chinese are the least concerned citizenship in the world. Only 18 per cent of Chinese see the issue as a very serious problem, down 23 percentage points from five years ago, and 36 points behind the global median.

A new study by political economist Dr Alex Lo has concluded that the country’s reduced political debate could be to blame for the lack of concern. “In China popular environmentalism is biased towards immediate environmental threats”, such as desertification and pollution, Lo writes, “giving little impetus to a morally driven climate change movement”.

For the international community, all is well and good as long as the Chinese government continues along its current trajectory. But without an engaged public to hold it to account there’s always a chance its promises may fade into thin air.

So perhaps the UK’s tendency to moan about how hard it is to care about the (seemingly) remote impacts of climate change isn’t all bad. At least we know it is something worth moaning about. And perhaps we care more than we let on to each other.

Statistics published this summer by the Department of Energy and Climate Change reveal that three quarters of the British public support subsidies for renewable energy, despite only 10 per cent thinking that the figure is that high. “Even if the public think the consensus is not there, there are encouraging signs that it is,” says Liz Callegari, Head of Campaigns at WWF. “Concern for climate change is growing.”

As Price puts it, “You can think of climate change as this kind of marathon effort that we have to address and in Paris we just have to get people walking across the start line together”. Maybe then we will all be ready to run.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.