Focus on China underplays the urgent need for the US & EU to lead on 2ºC mitigation

China revisited: a response to Glen Peter’s interview in the New York Times (21/09/14) New CO2 Emissions Report Shows China’s Central Role in Shaping World’s Climate Path
A shortened version of this post is included as a comment on the NYT website.

The abridged interview with Glen Peters risks overplaying the role of China and underplaying the emissions of the wealthier nations. Whilst in the full interview Glen acknowledges China’s role in manufacturing goods for the rest of the world, he does not develop this important point and it is anyway absent from the final published version. Taking account of such imported and exported emissions provides a much clearer picture of how carbon intensive are the lifestyles of citizens within particular nations – and provides a very different perspective on apportioning responsibility for emissions and hence potential solutions for reducing them.

Using the Global Carbon Project’s excellent online Atlas ( and the World Bank’s population database ( enables the carbon emissions associated with the lifestyle of a nation’s typical citizen to be estimated. So whilst Glen notes “China has per-capita emissions 45 percent over the global average, and higher per-capita emissions than the European Union” – the Global Carbon Project’s own consumption-based data points to a very different conclusion. The carbon emissions from an average Chinese person’s lifestyle are only 18% higher than the global average, are 36% lower per capita than those of a typical European and just a third of the emissions from a US citizen. For Norway, where Glen is based, emissions are almost twice those from a typical Chinese person, and in Australia, Glen’s home country, emissions are almost two and half times greater. The lifestyles of UK, German and Japanese citizens emit, respectively, 110%, 90% and 70% more carbon than do their Chinese counterparts. Even with widespread and low carbon nuclear energy, French emissions per capita are still over 35% higher than those of an average Chinese person.

Consequently, whilst Glen’s warning that “[m]ost analyses use models that have very optimistic assumptions [on] carbon pricing globally and the availability of key technologies” is well made, his suggestion that China needs to reduce emissions at a “greater [rate] than the mitigation challenge for the United States” is misleading and potentially divisive.

If the global community is serious in its repeated commitment to ‘stay below a 2°C temperature rise’, the mitigation challenge for all nations will be extremely demanding. Glen’s suggested 10% p.a. reduction in emissions illustrates the scale of the challenge, but it needs to be delivered first in the US, the EU and other wealthier nations whose citizens typically live higher-carbon lifestyles, with China only following suite much later1.

Table 1 Lifestyle carbon emissions of Chinese citizens compared with those from a range of wealthier nations. Calculated from Glen Peter’s 2012 consumption-based data (see above link)

   Annual emissions in
tonnes of CO2 per person

World                           5.0
China                          5.9
France                         8.1
EU28                           9.4
UK                             10.1
Norway                     11.1
Germany                  11.4
Japan                       12.5
Australia                   14.9
USA                          17.7

1 For the upper end of the IPCC’s “likely” 2°C carbon budget range, China needs to peak emissions by around 2025 and then begin an immediate programme of decarbonisation to match rates of mitigation similar to those of the wealthy nations by the early 2030s.