Wednesday, February 25, 2009

China's growth is no figleaf for the real source of CO2 emissions: the UK

George Monbiot Blog, UK

China is blamed for soaring carbon emissions and used as an excuse for the west to do nothing

china emissions

A worker rides past coal-fueled cooling towers at a power plant in Guangan Photograph: Frederic J Brown/AFP

Whenever a government or a corporation doesn't want to do something, it blames China. You want fair terms of trade? Sorry, not when China's dumping its goods on the world market. You want a 40-hour week? Forget it, the Chinese are working a 40-hour day.

You want to cut carbon emissions? Pointless when the Chinese are building a new power station every three seconds. Just as it has been for 150 years, the "Yellow Peril" is invoked to frighten us into acquiescing to any number of domestic agendas.

But now, of course, we find that the story is not quite as we have been told. Yes, China's carbon pollution is soaring (though the Chinese still produce less than half as much CO2 per capita as we do), but that's only partly because of China's own consumption.

A new paper in Geophysical Research Letters shows that half the recent growth in emissions, and one-third of China's total carbon pollution, should, in fairness belong to other countries, as they have been produced while manufacturing goods for export. By closing down our manufacturing industries and moving production to China, we have dumped our emissions in another country.

This is the only reason why the UK, among other nations, appears to be meeting its commitments under the Kyoto Protocol. Two studies, one by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), the other by economist Dieter Helm show that when the UK's total consumption - rather than just its production - of carbon pollution is audited, our emissions have increased by 18-20% since 1990, rather than falling by 18.4% as the government claims.

The government is well aware of this. After all, it commissioned the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) report – but has sought to hide it from the public. The only acknowledgement of this issue in its latest annual Climate Change Progress report (pdf) was expressed in such a backhanded way that I had to perform several small sums to work out what it meant.

The progress report boasted that even when emissions in countries exporting goods to the UK are taken into account, "the total annual reduction of UK greenhouse gas emissions since 1990 was around 240 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent [MtCO2eq] below business as usual".

Elsewhere in the report, the government says that "business as usual" would have led to an increase of 40% in emissions since 1990. This gives us a figure of 1079 MtCO2eq. Subtract 240 from 1,079 and you get 839, or 187 MtCO2 eq above current emissions.

This means that the emissions for which the UK is responsible have risen by 9%. But even this is only half the real figure, according to SEI and Dieter. It's another of New Labour's blatant attempts to con us.

Dieter Helm argues that by counting only directly-emitted carbon production, the Kyoto treaty gives governments and corporations an incentive to dump as many of their emissions in other countries as possible, through the transfer of manufacturing jobs overseas. He also points out that it leads to optimistic assumptions about the costs of cutting carbon, such as Lord Stern's estimate that preventing climate breakdown would cost only 1% of GDP.

The current accounting method is also grossly unfair on China and other manufacturing nations in the developing world. Unless it is changed at Copenhagen in December, they will be asked to take responsibility for much of our consumption, as well as their own. Justice demands that the ultimate polluter pays: this means consumers in the rich world, not producers in poorer nations.

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