China Becomes World Leader in Carbon Emissions

By David L. Brown

As expected, China has exceeded the United States as a producer of carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas responsible for global warming and climate change. According to a story yesterday in The Guardian (read it here):

The surprising announcement will increase anxiety about China’s growing role in driving man-made global warming and will pile pressure onto world politicians to agree a new global agreement on climate change that includes the booming Chinese economy. China’s emissions had not been expected to overtake those from the US, formerly the world’s biggest polluter, for several years, although some reports predicted it could happen as early as next year.

Of course, the announcement wasn’t a particular surprise to us here at Star Phoenix Base because we have been aware that the Middle Kingdom has been building coal-powered power plants at the rate of one or more per week while adding tens of thousands of private vehicles to a rapidly expanding highway system. Here is a photo that illustrates the nature of the problem:


The figures were released by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, which concluded that China produced 6,200 million tonnes of CO2 last year, compared with 5,800 million tonnes from the US. Britain produced about 600 million tonnes. According to The Guardian’s report:

Jos Olivier, a senior scientist at the government agency who compiled the figures, said: “There will still be some uncertainty about the exact numbers, but this is the best and most up to date estimate available. China relies very heavily on coal and all of the recent trends show their emissions going up very quickly.” China’s emissions were 2% below those of the US in 2005. Per head of population, China’s pollution remains relatively low – about a quarter of that in the US and half that of the UK.

The new figures only include carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel burning and cement production. They do not include sources of other greenhouse gases, such as methane from agriculture and nitrous oxide from industrial processes. And they exclude other sources of carbon dioxide, such as from the aviation and shipping industries, as well as from deforestation, gas flaring and underground coal fires.

Dr Olivier said it was hard to find up to date and reliable estimates for such emissions, particularly from countries in the developing world. But he said including them would be unlikely to topple China from top spot. “Since China passed the US by 8% [in 2006] it will be pretty hard to compensate for that with other sources of emissions.”

While The Guardian didn’t mention it, according to a recent story in The Washington Post the U.S. contribution to CO2 emissions actually declined in the last year even though the economy grew by 3.3 percent. The Post’s article, which appeared May 24, added that:

The 1.3 percent drop in CO2 emissions marks the first time that U.S. pollution linked to global warming has declined in absolute terms since 2001 and the first time it has gone down since 1990 while the economy was thriving. Carbon dioxide emissions declined in both 2001 and 1991, in large part because of economic slowdowns during those years.

According to the Post article (read it here), “A number of factors helped reduce emissions last year, according to the government, including weather conditions that reduced heating and air-conditioning use, higher gasoline prices that caused consumers to conserve, and a greater overall reliance on natural gas.”

The fact that China and other “emerging economies” were given a free pass by the Kyoto Accords is the main reason why the Senate sent President Bill Clinton a unanimous vote of no confidence affirming that if presented with the treaty for confirmation, the legislative body would reject it. Thus, even though Clinton and Vice President Al Gore strongly favored participation in Kyoto, it was never presented to the Senate. (It is commonly believed that George Bush was responsible for the U.S. failure to join in the Accords, but that is clearly not true. The fault, if such it is, lay with the Senate and it took place during the Clinton administration. That is not to say that the Bush administration has shown itself to be at all green, although there seems to be a recent shift in that direction.)

China is continuing to grow its economy as if there were no tomorrow, and unfortunately they are modeling that growth on a duplication of the industrial expansion that began in the West a century or more ago. The belching steel mills and factories that once dotted the American landscape are no more, and it is plain that the environment and supplies of natural resources do not support a repeat of that industrialization. And yet, that is exactly what China is doing. With a population well over one billion and growing, the outlook cannot be very encouraging for reining in the world’s emissions of greenhouse gas. And no matter how much progress is made in America, with the Chinese building a second industrial age the CO2 load in our atmosphere will continue to grow, causing increased warming and climate change that could prove disastrous.

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