April 20th, 2007 <-- by Paul Higgins -->

In recent years, China has emitted more carbon dioxide than any other country, except the United States (see Figure 1). Furthermore, Chinese emissions will soon overtake even the US, on a per country basis. Policy debates over emission reductions, particularly in the US, often focus on the need to include China in any effort. Why would the US (or any other country) begin to reduce emissions unless the Chinese take similar actions?

One reason is that the Chinese are in an earlier stage of economic development than the US and other developed countries. This becomes clear if we look at total historical emissions (see Figure 2) rather than exclusively focusing on the recent years. Viewed this way, the Chinese still have some catching up to do before they match US emissions.

More importantly, a focus on country level emissions is highly misleading because it doesn’t account for vastly different population sizes.

Even in the recent years, the average person living in the United States has emitted around 6 times more than the average Chinese citizen (see in Figure 3). The high country-wide emissions from China come from a relatively low (but rapidly rising) level of per capita emissions combined with a huge population.

Should we think of emissions in per country or per person terms?

Simple comparisons between countries don’t make sense if you believe in personal responsibility and individual liberty. (NB: if you support government that is of, by, and for the people, you may sacrifice consistency by ignoring individuals and treating nations as collective units). Focusing exclusively on national emissions implies that citizenship alone determines how much an individual gets to emit.

Taken to the extreme, a focus on country-wide emissions means that China (or any country) could reduce its emissions by simply dividing itself in to several smaller countries. These smaller countries would each have lower emissions, but there would be no change in emissions overall.

Unfortunately, the focus on per country emissions distracts from the very real problems that we face with all emitters, including China. I see four major obstacles that thoughtful climate policies must contend with. First, all countries will ultimately need to constrain and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Policies must encourage all countries to cooperate. Second, some businesses in those nations that do the most to reduce emissions may face disadvantages relative to their competitors who happen to be in nations that do the least. Third, if we aren’t careful emissions could simply shift from countries that seek to aggressively curb them to those nations that choose a wait-and-see approach. Finally, excluding major emitters (in per country terms) like China from solutions creates major political obstacles for nations eager to adopt policy options (see our general overview of societal options here).

We must focus on these real obstacles without being sidetracked by misleading arguments that ignore population sizes when comparing different countries’ emissions. Thoughtful unilateral action by individual nations can encourage other nations to join policy efforts and overcome the obstacles. Having characterized the problems with this post, I’ll talk about some those solutions next time. Stay tuned.


  1. anonymous Says:

    One final, less-salient (?) argument. The atmosphere doesn’t give a fig about who dives into emissions reductions first or fastest, given CO2’s residence time in the atmosphere. Just so someone(s) dive. China may surpass us soon, but I suspect the atmosphere would still be happier in the long run (sorry, anthropomorphizing here) if we cut first and China lags than if both dawdled. Or am I missing something?

  2. Hank Roberts Says:

    > Why would the US (or any other country) begin to reduce emissions
    > unless the Chinese take similar actions?

    Looking forward to your answers next time.

    I’d think it’d be for the same reason any country tries to be early in developing new, marketable technology? — those who develop it gain an economic advantage, and other countries will line up to buy it rather than facing the delay and the patent system attempting belatedly to develop their own.

    The only reason to stick with old technology is a decision to use up a resource that’s cheap before finding a replacement for it — like what was called “economic hunting” in North America a century ago, same as the “bush meat” industry in Africa, or commercial whaling, or deepsea trawling, or clearcutting, or any other strip-mining approach to resource management.

    The people and countries who move out of those businesses early can invest early in the next, better, more economically viable business to meet the same market needs. Those who stay with the old method the longest are history.

  3. Simon Donner Says:

    It’s important to stress per capita emissions to demonstrate the “inequity” of climate change, but also to demonstrate the plentiful opportunities for emission reductions in this part of the world.

    The high per capita emissions in the US and Canada means not only that North Americans are disproportionately “responsible” for the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, it also means that there are more easy actions, more low-hanging fruit, than in more energy- and GHG-efficient countries (Europe, Japan).

    The same can be said within North America. What’s remarkable – and challenging -about California and British Columnia’s climate policy initiatives is that they are already two of the most greenhouse gas efficient jurisdications in North America. Long-term emissions reduction there (~80% below current levels by 2050) will much more challenging than they would be in many other state and provinces.

  4. Paul Baer Says:

    Two headlines:
    “China emissions to exceed US by 2010”
    “Chinese per capita emissions to reach 1/4 of US levels in 2010”

    The problem of course is that emissions everywhere need to average about 0.5 tC per capita or less by 2050, and China is already over this level (about 1.2 tC per capita currently by best estimates). But with per capita income also about 1/4 of rich-world levels, they have a pretty good claim that they shouldn’t have to pay for those reductions anytime soon.

    EcoEquity is promoting a capacity and responsibility-based allocation framework called Greenhouse Development Rights. A quantified model will be released jointly with Christian Aid in a few weeks; meanwhile the concept is described in a draft currently available on our website


  5. Patrick Henry Says:

    The US produces most of the world’s food exports. It takes a lot of energy to grow and transport food. When considering energy usage, it is essential to factor in productivity. The US is actually quite efficient in this regard.

    Many low CO2 countries are nearly pure consumers and it is absurd to use this metric to compare them with the US.

  6. Peter Says:

    I have an article that may be interesting to some people here.

    A Sensible Climate Control Protocol

    Peter Xiao
    Ottawa, Canada

    The Kyoto Protocol is in trouble because the big countries – the US, China and India – are not bounded by it. The EU wants the US in the protocol, while the US believes other large CO2 emitters such as China and India should commit to reduce their greenhouse gases. But China and India claim that they need time to develop their economies and refuse to be restricted by official climate control targets.

    To revive the Kyoto process, we will need a sensible and fundamentally fair method for allocating obligations to each country, regardless whether it is big or small, developed or developing.

    First, this fair method must be rid of the arbitrary base year in relation to the determination of the emission reduction targets. The Kyoto Protocol chose 1992 as base year and the developed countries committed to an overall reduction of 5.2% of the base year level during 2008-20012. Naturally, developing countries like China and India did not have to do anything in the protocol because their emission levels were very low in 1992. Since then, the two countries’ economies have arisen tremendously and as a consequence, their emissions have soared as well.

    Second, the new method must provide a good balance between a per-country cap of emission and a per-capita one. A per-country cap implies that each country has the cap regardless its population, which it is clearly acceptable to big countries such as the US, China and India. On the other hand, a per-capita limit suggests that every person can emit the same amount regardless the size of its country. This wouldn’t be practical because, as a result of it, China and India would be able to emit four times as much as the US and EU – before that happened, the earth would have already been destroyed.

    Then, what to do? We propose the following sensible strategy that includes three criteria.

    Criterion one, a country’s emission cap is a function of its population. This means that a bigger country will have a higher cap than a smaller country.

    Criterion two, a country’s emission cap is a function of its GDP per capita. This provides a higher cap for more developed economies.

    Criterion three, a country’s emission cap is a function of its spaciousness. We define here the spaciousness of a country as its area per capita. The purpose of this rule is to encourage responsible population growth. Uncontrolled demographic increase will only damage the already crowded planet.

    Combining the above three criteria, we specify the following formula: A country’s emission cap will be proportional to its population raised to the power of 0.5, multiplied by its GDP per capita raised to the power of 0.25, and further multiplied by its spaciousness raised to the power of 0.25.

    We need a starting point in order to calculate emission targets for all countries. The starting point is one country’s cap. We use the US for this purpose. In 2007, the US has a population of 301 million, its GDP per capita is US$43,900 and its spaciousness indicator is 0.0326 square-km per capita. According to the Kyoto Protocol, the US was supposed to reduce its emission level to 5,662 Mt CO2e (Megatonnes of Carbon Dioxides equivalent) or 18.8 Mt CO2e per capita.

    Using that figure and the proposed formula, we could calculate a cap all other countries. For example, we could determine: Australia, 652 Mt CO2e (31.9 Mt CO2e per capita); Canada, 1,014 (30.4); EU27, 6,180 (12.5); Japan, 1,273 (10.0); the US, 5,662 (18.8); China, 7,785 (5.9); India, 4,132 (3.7).

    Obviously the formula is not perfect because it allocated a bit too much of emission to spacious countries such as Australia and Canada. However, it is a method that is objective and independent of any base year, which is advantage because it could prevent any state from dragging its feet for the purpose of obtaining a higher starting base year.

    Further, the propose method makes it easy for additional reduction of emissions. For example, suppose that every nation agrees to reduction of the level in which the US will have 12.0 Mt CO2e per capita. According to the formula, Australia will need to commit to 20.4 Mt CO2e per capita, Canada 19.4, EU27 8.0, Japan 6.4, the US 12.0, China 3.8, and India 2.3.

    Although the emission levels for China and India seem to be too low to be fair, in fact, the two countries will be able to raise emission levels as their GDP per capita rises because the cap is a function of it. In addition, if the two states reduce their populations, their cap per capita will rise as well. Therefore, there is no inherent unfair limit imposed on China’s or India’s economic development.

    In summary, the method proposed above allows an objective and reasonably fair approach to allocate emission targets every country and every individual.

  7. rikkitikkitawwi Says:

    Interesting and so very predictable!
    It’s really very easy maths and all this to’s and fro’s to make India and China look responsible for it all is expected and rich.
    This time, if you don’t want your scientists to be laughed out of court, stick to the right maths, orthe other scientist will take you back to school. This world belongs to all of us and per capita it is buddy. All this production of food nonsense. Its done for profit, either that or the yank is eating too much. Stop it now and dont be fat!
    By the way I notice you didn’t factor in the number of years of abuse already made by each country, now that would be interesting.!
    Bit like a man who has 20 light bulbs on telling a man who is just turning one on to stop it.! Really!!!! You rekon!
    Not only are India and China now the two greatest, brightest, cleverest nations but also the least polluting per capita. And they also have all they need to stop any unfair militry action in a matter of minutes.
    Stop lecturing other people and clean up your shit or else get ready to be laughed at.

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