An unlikley climate change alliance has emerged: China and Christian Aid. Both argue that countries should take responsibility for their aggregate greenhouse gas emissions to ensure fair play as nations strive to halve global emissions by 2050.
He Jiankun, a professor from Tsinghua University, says today that developed countries, which are home to just 20 percent of the world’s population, have contributed 75 percent of all global emissions since the Industrial Revolution. Therefore, because cumulative carbon dioxide emissions hang around in the atmosphere for 50-100 years, every nation should take responsibility for its aggregate contribution to climate change.
Conservative commentators this week charge that China is looking for ways to obscure the fact that it now tops the list in annual carbon dioxide emissions and that that the country is “backing out of global efforts to address climate change”.
This sort of argument will no longer wash.
The truth is that rich countries have been exporting their emissions to countries like China and India, and it’s that that has got to stop.
This point was forcibly made two years ago by the UK-based NGO Christian Aid. In a report called Coming Clean: Revealing the UK’s true carbon footprint , the charity stated firmly that “it is indisputably the rich, industrialised, northern countries that caused this problem in the first place” and went on: “Given that the UK arguably began the whole process of polluting the planet by leading the industrial revolution, this sidestepping of our moral culpability for climate change is unworthy and will do little to inspire developing countries to curb their own emissions”.
The Chinese scientists’ proposition is tricky, to put it mildly, for rich countries like Britain. Its former prime minister, Tony Blair, liked to tell the world that his country was only responsible for two per cent of global emissions. “[If] we shut down all of Britain’s emissions tomorrow, growth in China will make up the difference within two years. So we’ve got to be realistic about how much obligation we’ve got to put on ourselves” he said 2006 (on returning from a Caribbean holiday).
Christian Aid point out in ‘Coming Clean’ that although CO2 emissions based physically in the UK may comprise just two per cent of today’s global total, the activity of UK companies worldwide raises that share to 12-15 per cent. Christian Aid did not say this at the time, but if you add in UK aggregate emissions since 1900, as the Chinese scientists want us to do, then the UK is responsible for one fifth of all global emissions.
Which is startling, but not the important point. Rather than divide the world up into innocent and guilty nations, the priority now is to understand the global economy as a totality, determine, with numbers, which economic flows of stuff are unsustainable, and design their replacements. This is not a small ask. But, as I’ve pointed out here on several occasions, the elements of a completely new economic order are not far from being ready to be put into place.