文章 Articles

Taking responsibility for carbon emissions

China’s efforts to control sulphur dioxide emissions divert the focus from the real problem: the country’s growing greenhouse-gas emissions, says Feng Yongfeng. Consumers must now consider the role they can play in reducing China’s carbon footprint.

Article image

In the past, air pollution in China was simply regarded as a question of controlling “industrial smoke and dust”. But this has changed, and now sulphur dioxide is firmly at the top of China’s pollution-control agenda. In May 2006, China’s State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) ordered the country’s five main electricity producers to produce detailed plans for reducing their sulphur dioxide emissions, with the aim of reducing their emissions in 2010 to 10% below the 2005 level.

To China’s embarrassment, it is the world's largest emitter of sulphur dioxide and the world’s second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide. In October 2006, an international conference, Strategic Approaches to Regional Air Quality Management in China, was held in Beijing, and the local environmental-protection directors who spoke all focused on sulphur dioxide. But some experts have suggested it is now more important to look for ways to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions.

Zhou Guoyi and colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Southern China Botanical Garden recently published a report in China's Science magazine. After 25 years of research on old-growth forests in south China’s Dinghushan, in Guangdong province, the scientists concluded that the soil in old-growth forests has considerable capacity for carbon storage. They found that the top 20 centimetres of soil in every square kilometre of mature forest can store 0.61 tonnes of carbon dioxide every year. This provides even greater impetus for the protection of China’s natural forests, and disputes traditional ideas that regard old-growth forests as nothing more than “carbon neutral,” with carbon uptake balanced by respiration.

But what do these results really mean? Will people come to realise the dangers of carbon dioxide emissions? And when a British economist issued a stark warning on climate change, how many Chinese people took notice of the impending disaster?

Liu Dongsheng, a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, points out that the planet’s periodic ice ages mean that some cycles of warming and cooling are normal. But natural cycles of warming would result in increased vegetation in the northern hemisphere, rather than the drought and desertification that are so serious in places such as northern China today.

Paleoclimatologists have gathered considerable evidence from the ice caps, the seabed, deep soil, caves and fossilised trees to show that increases in carbon dioxide emissions since the industrial revolution correlate with rising global temperatures, and that current temperatures are the highest in 420,000 years. This has lead some to propose that we have entered the “Anthropocene” era, in which human activity has a significant effect on the life of the planet. However, some put the dawn of this era as early as 10,000 years ago, when humans first started to plant grain and raise animals, resulting in emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas with 20 times the global-warming potential of carbon dioxide.

Industry has released huge amounts of carbon dioxide contained in the soil, in wood and in ice into the atmosphere. On top of this, we have felled large numbers of trees, turned forests and grasslands into fields, built cities on coastal shallows and drained swamps in order to plant crops. Even those fields have now become “industrial development parks”; single-storey buildings have become skyscrapers; and our once-clear streams are completely polluted. Humans have committed two major environmental faults: as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased through our activity, we have also slashed the earth’s vegetation coverage – and its capacity to absorb the carbon dioxide we are producing.

Many place the burden of environmental responsibility on the shoulders of government and business, but this leaves out our own role in the situation. China became the “workshop of the world” because of cheap raw materials and a lack of environmental responsibility. Companies did not need to pay the true price of materials, for environmental recovery or compensation, and so that cost was not passed onto the consumer. Both government and business act on behalf of society; carbon dioxide emissions are a result of our lifestyles and consumption habits. The duty of environmental protection lies not only with the manufacturers; it is time to look at the responsibility of the consumer. Consumption creates carbon-dioxide emissions, and therefore consumers should feel a responsibility to reduce them. Only when people realise this will they be willing to pay “environmental taxes” to compensate resource depletion and pay for environmental improvement. After all, both government funding and corporate profits come foremost from consumers.

The more progressive among us are already taking up the cause. For example, the Costa Rican football team at the 2006 World Cup offset all the carbon dioxide emissions incurred in their participation in the competition. Very simple formulas can be used to calculate the carbon dioxide emissions that an individual is responsible for. All you need to do is visit a website, press a few keys to answer questions about what you consume, and you will get the results in seconds. And by calculating the cost of your consumption according to international carbon trading prices, you can work out your debt to the global environment.

But what should the money be used for? The answer is simple: improving the environment. It could be by planting trees or protecting permanent vegetation, restructuring industry or researching technologies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Only when we make up our minds to really do something about our carbon responsibility, will China’s carbon emissions get the attention they deserve and will practical solutions be found.

Now is the time to discuss our personal carbon responsibility and cut down our carbon emissions, to simply focus on sulphur dioxide is not enough.

Feng Yongfeng is technology correspondent for the Guangming Daily.

Homepage photo by Patrick Rioux

Now more than ever…

chinadialogue is at the heart of the battle for truth on climate change and its challenges at this critical time.

Our readers are valued by us and now, for the first time, we are asking for your support to help maintain the rigorous, honest reporting and analysis on climate change that you value in a 'post-truth' era.

Support chinadialogue

发表评论 Post a comment

评论通过管理员审核后翻译成中文或英文。 最大字符 1200。

Comments are translated into either Chinese or English after being moderated. Maximum characters 1200.

评论 comments

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





Mechanism needed to promote individual carbon responsibility

In addition to the encouragement for increased awareness to environment protection, a good mechanism is needed to make it possible for individuals to take their carbon responsibilities.

The mechnism should guarantee the money paid by individuals for their carbon emissions will be invested in sustainable and green development of the industries which cause the emissions, instead of being used for other purposes.

As an example, the money individuals pay for their traffic emissions will be injected into the environment-friendly development of transport industry.

Otherwise, personal carbon responsibility will be an excuse for policy makers to impose taxes on the public, who however cannot benefit from the system.

So, basically emission reduction is a target which could only be achieved by coordinated efforts by all parties, from the authorities to the ordinary people. Everybody has the responsibility and a role to play.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



A conflict between sulphur and carbon

The benefit of an ‘individual carbon responsibility’ has never been in question. However, it becomes incomprehensible to people when a science writer uses guarded language, confuses the notions of sulphur dioxide and carbon dioxide, and contrasts sulphur dioxide is to the dangers that carbon dioxide poses to the environment. The beginning of the article mentions that China is controlling sulphur dioxide emissions by focusing the masses’ attention to the actual problems. I find it very strange that controlling sulphur dioxide is publicly equalled to focusing the masses attention. As a matter of fact, people’s awareness of sulphur dioxide as cause for acid rain is far greater than carbon dioxide’s role in the greenhouse effect. Moreover, China has already been subjected to the harmful effects of acid rain as long as thirty years ago. Although at present, carbon dioxide’s effect as a green house gas is still scientifically debated and speculated, this does of course not mean it may be treated lightly. The meeting’s theme was mentioned in the second paragraph of the text: ‘Strategic Approaches to Regional Air Quality Management in China’. The quota for such ‘regional air quality’ is often what is heard in our weather forecasts: a slight amount of pollution can cause inhalation of particles, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and so forth. There is fundamentally no mention of issues connected to carbon dioxide, which include its role in raising pH factor, and its major effect on global temperature. But not the quality of air in the region! How can it be that the authorities mentioned in the text are ignorant to the connections between regional air quality and carbon dioxide emissions?! There were other logical inconsistencies in the text which I do not wish to discuss here one by one, except this one: the notions at the very end of the article do not correspond to the preamble set. The entire article is very disappointing. - Aturen

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


我建议冯先生多加探讨对科技方面的知识, 因为他看来似乎对碳和硫磺方面的知识有所不足。此外, 我还建议冯先生在未开始撰写文章前首先对第十一届环境保护五年计划有所了解。削减20%能源(碳)的应用是第十一个五年计划的主要目标之一, 比控制二氧化碳的排放目标更为重要。谢谢!

Advice for Yongfeng Feng

May I advise Mr Feng learn more about science and technology, since he has limited knowledge about carbon and sulphur. May I also advise Mr Feng studies the environmental targets of 11th Five-Year-Plan first and then writes his report? Energy (carbon) intensity 20% reduction is one of the key targets of 11th Five-Year Plan, which is even more important than the SO2 target. Thanks!

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


阅读了一篇关于中国必须严重对待温室气体排放的问题, 真是令人鼓舞。但是, 我觉得冯永锋低估了这项挑战的规模大小。去年我在这网站所发表的一篇文章, 建议到这将是巨大的挑战 (看” 气候变化政治时代的到来”2006年11月20日) 。个人的责任和志愿的行动是好的出发点。然而, 有效达到减排目标还需要新的管治和责任形式,无论是在中国或世界其它各地。此外, 时不可待,现在就需要行动起来了。卡斯帕•亨德森

A small step. More needed

It is encouraging to read an article saying that China needs to take emissions of greenhouse gases seriously. But I think Yongfeng Feng underestimates the magnitude of the challenges.

In an article published on this site late last year, I suggested these were very large indeed. (see "Time for a politics of climate change" , Nov 20, 2006).

Personal responsbility and voluntary action are a good place to start, but significantly reducing emissions means structural changes that will require new forms of governance and accountability, in China as much as in the rest of the world. And the timescale for action is short.

Caspar Henderson

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Reply by Yongfeng Feng

Many people are still unclear on what is actually found in ‘air’. Quite a number of people are also unclear on how carbon dioxide in the air harms humanity, or how humanity may ‘drive out’ or ‘remove’ this carbon dioxide from the air. We tend to put blame immediately on the government when discussing environmental responsibility. This is very simple to do. To put blame on the industry is also very convenient. But in fact, it is a problem that lies with the individual.
There has been much talk about sulphur dioxide in China. All the news coverage on environmental protection in the past few years has been very tentative on the issue of carbon dioxide emissions. It did not emphasise carbon dioxide nearly as much as sulphur dioxide. Many people have even reacted with deep astonishment. They are under the impression I am discussing a very distant issue. People find it easier to understand the problem of polluted waters, and visible pollution through waste. They find it hard to sympathise with other problems such as marshes drying up, the disappearance of rainforests, rising sea levels, harm to wildlife, problems of soil recovery etcetera. Similarly, people find it easier to understand the threats of sulphur dioxide to those of carbon dioxide.
I spoke about the following two problems in this article: the rise of carbon dioxide as a more pressing issue than sulphur dioxide; and individual responsibility as more important than government and industrial responsibility.
The Chinese government has many commitments and laid out many programs. But, China is also a country that is very good at pledging commitment without implementing the required measures. Therefore, no pledge for commitment would be able to instill faith in me.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


“限制与共有”(www.capandshare.org)是一个在英爱两国正在进行的活动。它是在大多经济及政治学者所知道的“收缩及集中”提议的基础上发展起来的。“收缩”的意思,就是碳排放量的限度年益减低到国际社会协定的水平。“集中”的意思,就是给各国分配按其人口确定的许可证(许可证是指一种用化石燃料及排放碳气的权利)。按照“限制与共有”提议,我们应该进一步 扩展“收缩与集中”的方法,将许可证的权利给世界上全部的成年人口,而不给国家政府。简而言之,为了预防温室效应,“限制与共有”既作为一个方法,又作为一个活动。它的基本原则即:在世界将超过欧盟规定的不能高于前工业时代温度平准的温度目标之前,每个人都应有权利共有地球上越来越少的碳排放容量。在理论上,这个方法将限制世界排放量在目前的水平上,然后按温度目标的比率年益减低。每年,世界上全部的成年人口将共有排放重量。每个人受到证书来表示其个人的排放碳气的权利。然后,受证书的人通过银行系统将其权利卖给石油、煤碳及汽油生产者,而且这些生产者就集中证书足以补充每吨售卖的碳排放。系统的大优点,就是给每个人提供起码一部分赔款来补充…国际协议即使作为最理想的方式,任何国家也可以执行这个方式来推进可再生资源的投资。我是“未来在我们手中国际网络”(FIOH)(www.fiohnetwork.org)的协调者。FIOH不赞同持续发展与经济增长不能调和的观点。许多人不认为可再生资源有潜力取代化石汽油并仍然维持目前的经济增长率。根据化石燃料行业中著名的专家,石油已经达到了其最高的价格,而且汽油好几年以后才会达到其最高的价格(然而,斯特恩报告不同意这个观点)。难道核动力及煤炭不能补充这个缺乏吗?从中国最近的趋向及美国政府的发布来看,这颇有可能性。所有的取代燃料的方法都有严重的问题,在“限制与共有”及气候公司(Climate Corporation) 的网站上正在进行讨论。请您发表观点。如果您同意“限制与共有”提议,请参与我们的活动。 麦克 托马斯

Cap and Share

Cap and Share (www.capandshare.org)is a campaign, currently being run in the UK and Ireland, that has been developed from from the Contraction and Convergence proposal which is now widely understood by many economists and politicians. Contraction means that there is an internationally agreed cap and then year on year reductions, in greenhouse gas emissions down to an agreed level. Convergence means a sharing of the permits (right to use fossil fuels and hence emit greenhouse gases)to countries according to their populations. The Cap and Share proposal extends this concept by saying that this right should be allocated equally to all the world's adult citizens rather than governments.

Put simply:
Cap and Share is the name of both an approach (cap and share approach) and a campaign (Cap and Share) to arrest climate change. It is based on the belief that every human being has a right to an equal share of the Earth's very limited capacity to accept further greenhouse gas emissions before the temperature target adopted by the European Union, a maximum 2 degree Celsius rise in the Earth's average temperature over that in pre-industrial times, is exceeded.

It wants global emissions to be capped at their current level and then brought down year by year at a rate consistent with achieving the temperature target. Each year, the emissions tonnage involved would be shared equally amongst the Earth's adult population, each of whom would receive a certificate for their individual entitlement.

The recipients would then sell their entitlements through the banking system to oil, coal and gas producers who would need to acquire enough of them to cover the carbon dioxide emissions from every tonne of fossil fuel they sold.

One great advantage of the system is that it provides everyone with at least partial compensation for the higher cost of fossil fuels that limiting their availability would necessarily involve.
Whilst an international agreement would be the ideal, any individual country could take the initiative to introduce such an approach and help drive investment in renewables.
I am the coordinator for the Future in Our Hands International Network (www.fiohnetwork.org). FIOH challenges the idea that sustainable development can ever be compatible with economic growth. There are considerable doubts about the potential for renewables to substitute for fossil fuels and achieve current levels of economic growth. Prominent experts in the fossil fuel industry maintain that peak oil has already occured and the natural gas peak may not be many years away (this does not appear to be accepted in the Stern Review, however). Will nuclear power and coal be promoted to fill the gap? Current trends in China and political statements from the USA suggest this possibility.
There are profound problems associated with all the substitutes for fossil fuels and these are currently being debated on the Cap and Share and the Climate Cooperation web site to which it is linked. We invite you to contribute to the debate. If you agree with the Cap and Share proposal, please join the campaign.

Mike Thomas