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Carbon emissions: is China still a developing country?

China’s per capita carbon dioxide emissions increased by 9% over the past year

China’s per capita carbon dioxide emissions increased by 9% over the past year. At the same time, the average emissions of a person in the European Union dropped by 3%. The result: the average Chinese and European now has roughly the same carbon footprint. Here’s a helpful graph from Nature:
 
Tonnes C02 per capita
 
But what does that really mean?
 
The new statistics were released by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC). The PBL is the same organisation that revealed in 2007 that China’s emissions had outstripped the United States, making China the world’s number one carbon polluter by total volume.  
 
That change led many people to point out – correctly – that taking into account China’s massive population, the country’s average, per capita emissions were still roughly on a par with other developing nations.
 
For some commentators then, these new findings undermine that assertion – and call into question China’s claim to speak for developing countries in international climate diplomacy. The lead paragraph in Nature’s story summarises this point:
 
“For years China has dismissed concerns about its rising carbon emissions by pointing out that, on a per-capita basis, Chinese citizens still emit far less than their counterparts in the industrialized world. But now that China’s per-capita emissions are on par with those of the European Union, that argument will be much harder to make.”
 
However, climate equity isn’t only about parity between nations, but also between people and social groups within nations. One journalist tweeted me to point out that the statistics misrepresented the average person in China, given vast disparities in wealth across the country.
 
She has a point. A nomad on the Mongolian steppe certainly has a vastly different carbon footprint from the driver of a gas-guzzler – or “oil tiger” – in Shanghai. If it is misleading to look at countries’ emissions in terms of total volume, isn't it also a mistake to only look at per capita emissions?
 
Or is this simply a red herring: a case of a rising China “hiding behind its poor” diplomatically? As one commentator, Mat McDermott, writes:
 
“China less and less has a logical leg to stand on in continuing to insist it is in a different class of nation, one where mandatory emissions cuts are not required, than the world's rich nations and historical sources of greenhouse gases.”
 
McDermott wasn’t the first to suggest this. In the run-up to the Copenhagen conference in 2009, Hu Angang, a leading Chinese economist at Tsinghua University, wrote on chinadialogue that the “binary distinction” between developed and developing countries had become irrelevant.
 
China, he said in his conclusion, should “adopt emissions reductions and publish a timetable for doing so. This will promote a global agreement and China will become a leader in global governance.” Is it time, perhaps, to revisit his plans?
 
This article is translated and published here as part of our Green Growth project, a collaboration between chinadialogue and The Energy Foundation.

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