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Sunday, February 16, 2014

Global Warming: Has China Done Enough?

Whereas the Montreal Protocol in 1985 created a fund to reimburse countries for the incremental costs of banning ozone-depleting chemicals, later international agreements, such as the Kyoto Protocol, oriented to reducing global warming have not given countries, including developing nations such as China, a financial incentive to reduce carbon emissions. In fact, the U.S. Government rejected the Kyoto Protocol because the reductions only applied to developed countries. Even though China reduced its carbon emissions per unit of GNP by half from 1990 to 2010 by investing in alternative energy sources and mandating that polluting companies publicly disclose their respective emissions, the amount of emissions continued to increase dramatically through the period. How do we discern whether the Chinese government has done enough? Furthermore, are other countries enabling China and thus indirectly responsible and thus culpable too?

The steep rise in carbon emissions in China from 2003 demonstrate just how misleading incremental, or marginal, changes can be. Even China's goal of a 20% reduction in emissions by 2020 may not mean much in terms of the total amounts emitted. 

Because CO2 is a “stock” pollutant—meaning that global warming is a function of the total amount of accumulated CO2 in the planet’s atmosphere (regardless of when added)a country’s total emissions figure is key (total accumulated as well as annual amounts). As the following graph shows, China would have to do much more than it had accomplished during the first decade of the twenty-first century.

By 2010, industrialized countries had become large net-importers of products such as steel whose manufacture involves sizable CO2 emissions. 

Developed countries have enabled China’s emissions to the extent that they are “contained” in products exported. The increase for China from 1990 to 2010 (blue and red bars in the bar-graph below) is astonishing. So too is the increase in carbon emissions “embodied” in products imported by developed countries. Interestingly, the E.U. imported more product-emissions than did the U.S. both in 1990 and 2010. The larger manufacturing output of the U.S. may explain much of the difference in the respective nets. Europeans critical of the U.S. for walking away from the Kyoto Protocol may be surprised to learn that their country has been enabling foreign carbon-emissions more.  


The thick black lines heading to China from Australia and Indonesia stand out in this map, suggesting just how much carbon China emitted in 2011. 

Coal exports to China can be understood as another instance of enabling. As global shipping costs for bulk commodities such as coal dropped significantly, the amount of the commodity traded increased significantly. Obviously, major exporters have a financial incentive to oppose global carbon-emissions limits being written into multilateral treaties. In 2011, Australian companies extracted a lot of coal, a majority of which went to China. Indeed, the sheer magnitude of coal imported into China can tell us a lot about just how much carbon China continued to emit in spite of the government’s forays into alternative energy sources. Even though parts of Australia had been burned by the hole in the ozone layer decades before 2011, the continent’s government and mining companies have had a financial incentive to keep China from shifting to wind and solar energy sources sufficiently even to level-off China’s annual carbon emissions.

Had the Kyoto Protocol included carbon limits for developing countries, complete with “self-enforcing” financial incentives (e.g., an international fund to cover incremental costs of compliance) and disincentives (e.g., other countries in the treaty can boycott trade with non-compliers), in spite of opposition from major coal-exporters, perhaps China would have curtailed the upward trend in the country’s total carbon-emissions even by 2010.  Lest it be thought that the dictatorship in China has far outpaced the world’s largest democracy (i.e., India) as a “global citizen” enabling our species to have a future, keeping global warming to within 2 degrees (C) will require much more from China, and indeed the world.