The accusations keep cropping up when it comes to the debate around climate change: “China is the biggest destroyer of the planet,” “China is the worst country in terms of pollution,” “China is to blame.” But what role does China actually play in climate change?
Since 2008, China has topped the annual list of being the largest emitters of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2), according to Our World in Data, an online scientific publication that Oxford University contributes to. In 2019, China emitted 10.2 billion metric tons of CO2 — nearly twice as much as the United States (5.3 billion metric tons) — representing nearly 28% of global emissions.
But net emissions alone are not enough to blame China for climate change. “If you look at only one number, you’re only getting one side of the story,” says Shyla Raghav, vice president of climate change at Conservation International, an environmental organization headquartered in the United States.
CO2 emissions per capita paint a different picture
To get more insight, it’s worth looking at carbon dioxide emissions per capita. When combining 2019 data from the Global Carbon Project and Our World in Data, numerous states from the Caribbean and the Persian Gulf top the list. In 14th place is the US, with just over 16 tons of CO2 per capita. China emits less than half of that per capita, tallying 7.1 tons, putting the country in 48th place.
In the case of carbon dioxide, it is important to know that from a human perspective, the gas can remain in the atmosphere for an extremely long time: The entire decomposition process takes several hundred thousand years, according to the federal German Environment Agency. Oceans and forests can absorb some of the gas quite quickly — but an estimated 40% of the CO2 emitted by humans since 1850 has remained in the atmosphere, according to the international study Global Carbon Budget.
Historic emissions decisive
When examining what drives human-caused climate change, historical emissions must be considered. The data shows that although China is the second-largest emitter of carbon emissions as of 2019, it has emitted 220 billion metric tons of CO2 since 1750 — just over half as much as the US, which released 410 billion metric tons.
Germany’s historical emissions total 92 billion metric tons, putting it in fourth place behind Russia and ahead of the UK.
Robbie Andrew, a senior researcher at the Center for International Climate Research (CICERO) in Norway, said China began producing significant amounts of CO2 much later when compared to its historical emissions. “China’s emissions really weren’t significant. They didn’t start ramping up until about 2001 when China joined the World Trade Organization, and that gave it access to the world’s markets and that drove their economic boom, particularly focused on producing goods for exports,” said Andrew, who also participated in the Global Carbon Budget study.
“There was already a problem before China came along. So, effectively, China did not create the problem.”
Producer vs. consumer
There is one other point that plays a role when considering the question of climate change responsibility.
How many items do you own that bear the label “Made in China”? Items could include your smartphone, cutlery, a plastic chair or even your laptop. The greenhouse gases emitted during the product’s manufacturing are tallied as China’s — and not the country where you purchase and use it. Statistics on carbon emissions are usually recorded according to the producer principle, and not the consumer principle.
One feature of globalization is that countries in the Global North, in particular, have outsourced their production operations. When you take that into account, the picture shifts.
For example, under the consumer principle, the carbon footprint of the US in 2018 was around 6.3% higher than under the producer principle, while in Germany it was 14% more. Countries ranked highest under the consumer principle were Malta and Switzerland, with footprints 248% and 225% higher, respectively.
China, on the other hand, is a CO2 exporter. If the statistics are adjusted for emissions for products that go abroad, Chinese CO2 balance drops by 10%.
As CICERO researcher Andrew explains, this effect was even greater for China around 15 years ago. In the mid-2000s, export goods were responsible for about one-fifth of China’s emissions. But Andrew expects further changes for China in the future. “This effect is going to continue to decline because the share of China’s economy that’s focused on exports is declining as a share of the total,” he said.
Earlier this year, three scientists from Dutch and German research institutes proposed introducing a concept whereby responsibility for CO2 emissions should be shared between consumers and producers according to economic benefit.
What about other factors?
Other factors relating to globalization should also be considered. International shipping and air traffic don’t usually show up in statistics for individual countries, but rather are listed separately. This means transporting your laptop won’t affect the CO2 budget of either China or your country.
So when we talk about responsibility for climate change, the nation-state’s impact can’t be the only benchmark used: Transportation also has a significant share. In 2018, shipping was responsible for about 2.9% of human-caused CO2 emissions. The share of civil aviation was similar in 2019, at just over 2% (although this is somewhat higher considering atmospheric effects of flying).
Conservation International’s Shyla Raghav says focusing on a state-based measure of carbon emissions does have its weaknesses, but she also cautions: “What is the alternative?”
That leaves the question: Are we focusing too much on CO2 as a greenhouse gas when it comes to responsibility for climate change? Experts do agree that carbon dioxide is the biggest contributor to the warming of our planet. “CO2 levels are a good guide to all emissions,” Raghav said. Still, both Raghav and Andrew believe that other greenhouse gases should not be ignored when it comes to curbing climate change in the future.
Conclusion: It’s complicated
“I would say that China is not exclusively to blame for climate change,” concludes Raghav. But with China currently the world’s largest carbon emitter, she adds, Beijing now plays a critical role when it comes to taking responsibility in the fight against warming.
For CICERO researcher Robbie Andrew, the answer to responsibility for climate change cannot be based on statistics alone. “You have to ask the question: Could China have developed in any other way? And what would China look like now if, somehow, they had not used all of the coal they have access to? Is China to blame because it doesn’t have a wealth of hydropower resources?” Andrew questioned.
“The question of responsibility and blame is very complex,” he concluded. After all, China has set itself the climate goal of being carbon neutral by 2060.
This article is part of a series in which DW is debunking myths surrounding climate change.
This article was translated from German.