China is the world's leading CO2 polluter but it often relies on per capita emissions data to show that its footprint -- and thus its responsibility to manage climate change -- is much lighter than that of developed countries.
But on Friday Nicholas Stern, the British climate change expert said that carbon emissions per person in parts of China are already higher than in some developed countries.
"There are many parts of China where emissions intensity and emissions per capita are looking much like some of the richer countries in Europe," he told students at Beijing's People's University. Thirteen Chinese provinces, regions and cities had higher per capita emissions than France, and six also overtook Britain.From AFP:
Stern also warned that if the world continued to emit around the same levels of greenhouse gases every year, there was a 50 percent chance temperatures would rise more than five degrees Celsius (nine degrees Fahrenheit) within 100 years.
A rise of "five degrees Celsius has not been seen on this planet for 30 million years--we as humans have been here for only 200,000 years," he said. "This type of temperature change involves radical dislocation, it involves re-writing where people can live, it would involve the movement of hundreds of millions, probably billions, of people. This would result in extended, serious global conflict."
Stern, who is sanguine about China's resolve to fight climate change, has emphasized the need for the U.S. to step up to the plate on a climate treaty, and backed the idea that U.S. commerce secretary Gary Locke floated in Shanghai recently: that the West ought to help pay to reduce greenhouse gases in China because the West benefits from the dirty work of Chinese factories.
Another tall but important order: Stern has also recently underscored the need for the world to bring atmospheric carbon dioxide down to 350 parts per million.
The End of the Per Capita Emissions "Excuse"?
China and other developing nations have cited their per capita emissions in opposing any compulsory cuts in emissions ahead of climate talks in Copenhagen. Instead the responsibility for solving the problem rests with developed countries that have polluted longer, they say.
Stern's calculations indicate emissions per person worldwide would have to fall to two tons by 2050 to minimize the risk of a dangerous rise in temperature.
Currently, according to Stern, China emits six tonnes per person, the European Union emits an average of 12, and the United States 25.
The per capita Chinese emissions figures cited by Stern do not yet match those of the U.S. or Australia, which recently became the world's leading CO2 emitter per capita.
But whatever a country's per capita emissions are, they cannot be used, in the rhetoric of "catching up with the West," as an excuse to pollute.
And as a metric for determining who's responsible for mitigating climate change, per capita emissions are looking increasingly hazy too.