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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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt