Objection: China is worse

People look at the oil sands and say: “Yes, Canada is profiting off the destruction of the whole world, but we are a small part of the problem. China is doing so much worse, building new coal-fired power plants every week. Why should we deprive ourselves, when others will produce ruin for us all anyhow?”

There are many problems with this analysis. For one thing, China is pursuing its current model of development because it seems to have worked for countries like Canada, the United States, and Japan. If the richest and most technologically able countries get serious about a zero-carbon energy system, and they show that it can be done, countries that are developing rapidly now will have a new model to at least consider. Given the many disadvantages of fossil fuels, from air pollution to dependence on exports from volatile regions, a development strategy that is both credible and focused on renewables could have a lot of appeal in places like China, India, and Brazil.

Secondly, there is a suicide pact mentality that accompanies the decision to keep emitting greenhouse gas pollution recklessly because others are doing so. It is true that if just Canada abstains, and suffers lost resource revenues because of it, climate change will probably proceed to about the same extent as it would if Canada just kept cashing in on oil and gas. But the behaviour of other states is not independent of our behaviour, and other people care about the reasons for our actions. If Canada said: “We are going to leave fossil fuels underground, for the good of all humanity. We urge you to do the same.” it would at least advance the international discussion and focus attention on the key question of what proportion of all the world’s fossil fuels we choose to burn.

Thirdly, Canada’s impact is not trivial. When politicians boast about how the oil sands are a reserve as large as those of Saudi Arabia it should make us worried. Burning massive reserves of fossil fuel produces massive amounts of greenhouse gas pollution, even if you do manage to avoid causing too much local air and water pollution in the process of digging those fuels up. Canada’s giant fossil fuel reserves are a threat to the whole world, insofar as they are capable of making climate change that much more dangerous.

Canada cannot avert disaster on its own. Nobody can. But universal disaster is nonetheless an outcome we must avoid, and achieving that requires overcoming a status quo system that remains determined to burn all the world’s coal, oil, and gas and only then start thinking seriously about what energy sources will replace them. We need to do better than that, and one way to contribute to that effort is to refuse to use the bad behaviour of others as an excuse to continue to behave badly ourselves.

10 thoughts on “Objection: China is worse

  1. Pingback: Canada, China, and climate

  2. Byron Smith

    Thanks, I’m actually trying to put together a piece that tackles this same question from an Australian perspective (this objection is I think currently the most frequent one made against the proposed plan to put a price on carbon), so seeing parallel points here is helpful.

  3. .

    China will not allow its carbon dioxide emissions per person to reach levels seen in the US, according to the minister in charge of climate policy.

    Xie Zhenhua, vice chair of the National Development and Reform Commission, said that to let emissions rise that high would be a “disaster for the world”.

    Chinese per-capita emissions may reach US levels by 2017, a recent study said.

    Mr Xie was speaking during a visit to the UK that explored co-operation on clean energy and climate issues.

    It included signing a Memorandum of Understanding with UK Energy and Climate Secretary Chris Huhne on areas for joint research.

  4. .

    Carbon emissions and Kyoto protocol targets missed and met

    CANADA recently announced it was pulling out of the Kyoto protocol, a treaty on climate change, the first phase of which expires next year. By way of explanation, its environment minister pointed out that the protocol does not cover the world’s largest two emitters. Indeed, America, which did not ratify the agreement, and China, which as a developing country is exempt, are responsible for 41% of the world’s CO2 emissions. Between 1990 and 2009, China’s emissions increased by over 200% and America’s by 6.7%. But Canada’s carbon emissions have also increased, by over 20% in the same period, far from its Kyoto target of a 6% reduction.

  5. .

    China report spells out “grim” climate change risks

    (Reuters) – Global warming threatens China’s march to prosperity by cutting crops, shrinking rivers and unleashing more droughts and floods, says the government’s latest assessment of climate change, projecting big shifts in how the nation feeds itself.

    The warnings are carried in the government’s “Second National Assessment Report on Climate Change,” which sums up advancing scientific knowledge about the consequences and costs of global warming for China — the world’s second biggest economy and the biggest emitter of greenhouse gas pollution.

    Global warming fed by greenhouse gases from industry, transport and shifting land-use poses a long-term threat to China’s prosperity, health and food output, says the report. With China’s economy likely to rival the United States’ in size in coming decades, that will trigger wider consequences.

  6. Pingback: India and coal

  7. .

    India and coal

    One frequent talking point from people who see no problem with continuing to enlarge the bitumen sands is that action by countries like Canada is pointless as long as larger places like India and China continue to build large amounts of coal capacity.

    Countries like India where extreme poverty remains widespread have a genuine and convincing case that they should not have to sacrifice important human welfare developments for the sake of global decarbonization. Still, coal is so awful once you add up the health, environment, and climate costs that even the poorest places with the worst problems should not still be deploying it. For Canada and other rich states to credibly encourage that requires both far more aggressive domestic action to stop fossil fuel development and the determination to provide sufficient technical and financial assistance to help states like India decarbonize quickly enough to help us all avoid global catastrophe.

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