It was announced last year that China had overtaken the US as the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide. The statistics, which the Netherlands Environmental Assessment admitted there was “some uncertainty about”, nevertheless reinforced the idea that economic growth in poorer countries is the real driver of climate change.
Climate talks in Bali, Indonesia, last December were hailed as a major success, with all 190 governments – including the US – signing up to further talks based around “substantial cuts in greenhouse gas emissions”.
But just days later the US administration backtracked, saying the talks had not adequately addressed the responsibilities of “developing” countries.
As millions of people around the world have become aware of the causes and consequences of climate change, the biggest polluter – the US – has changed its propaganda.
Instead of disputing the scientific evidence for climate change, it is now shifting the blame for environmental destruction onto poorer countries.
In particular China has become the big bogeyman, with India not far behind. As a consequence, the responsibility of the rich Western countries is hugely downplayed.
The British government, which presents itself as a global leader in the fight against climate chaos, reinforces these ideas.
Recently Tony Blair said without any sense of irony, “If we shut down all of Britain’s emissions tomorrow, the growth in China will make up the difference within two years. So we’ve got to be realistic about how much obligation we put on ourselves.”
The attitude of Gordon Brown is not markedly different. Comments about British obligations are usually preceded with the reassuring statistics that Britain accounts for only 2 percent of global emissions.
What does not make the same kind of headline news is the amount of greenhouse gases emitted per person (per capita) in China and India.
It is important to look at per capita emissions because they paint a very different picture of the real contribution played by the average person in poorer countries.
Put simply, India emits 1.1 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person, China 3.5 tonnes, Britain 9.6 tonnes and the US a whopping 20.2 tonnes per person. The global average is 4.2 tonnes – much higher than both India and China.
The UN Human Development Report last year pointed out that the US state of Texas has higher emissions than the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, and that 19 million people in New York state have a bigger carbon footprint than 766 million people in the world’s poorest 50 countries.
To ignore per capita emissions in favour of total emissions per country also overlooks the way in which, in a globalised economy, Western
multinationals have played a central role in the rapid growth of the Chinese and Indian economies.
The growth in India and China in particular is one that Western corporations have hugely benefited from and have consciously driven in a scramble for cheap labour and markets.
Christian Aid points out that, “While only 2.13 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions emanate from Britain’s domestic economy, through the process of globalisation carbon dioxide is emitted around the world on Britain’s behalf in India, China, Africa and elsewhere.”
It adds, “Just as we have outsourced the dirty end of our industry to poorer countries and invested in those countries to get them to produce for us, so we have outsourced our carbon dioxide emissions.”
The well-respected Tyndall Centre for climate change research arrived at similar conclusions last year. It found that net exports from China to the West accounted for 23 percent of China’s emissions.
China produces 60 percent of the world’s DVD players, 80 percent of shoes, 70 percent of photocopiers, 80 percent of bicycles and 30 percent of TVs.
The Tyndall Centre notes that, “not only are industrialised countries historically responsible for the majority of carbon emissions to date, but industrialised countries may also have a significant responsibility for driving the rapid growth in emissions from industrialising countries such as China”.
The bulk of the companies driving the growth in China and hoping to benefit from it are from the West.
The same is true on a smaller scale in India. Ford Motors have joined a long list of car companies committing investment and planning aggressive expansion in the Indian market – a list that includes Fiat, Nissan, Renault, Volvo, Volkswagen, Suzuki and Hyundai.
Despite the newfound concern for the planet’s future professed by many major companies, it is business as usual when it comes to chasing profits, regardless of the consequences.
There is a further irony in the way that India and China have become the scapegoats for global warming.
While politicians in the West have only recently been forced to wake up to climate change, many poorer countries have been trying to cope with the consequences of it for decades.
India is one of the countries worst hit by climate change and is suffering from big temperature rises. Agricultural scientists have noted that these rises have caused wheat yields to drop by one tenth in a year.
Average temperature rises are also blamed for a rise in flash flooding.
During the flash floods in Britain in the summer of 2007, India also experienced floods – but the destructive impact was much greater because of poverty and lack of strong infrastructure.
China is increasingly regarded as an environmental disaster area. It has 20 of the world’s most polluted cities. 10 percent of Chinese gross domestic product is currently spent on dealing with the impact of this pollution.
According to the UN, one person in 19 in the world’s poorest countries is at risk from the effects of climate change, compared with one in 1,500 in the West.
Money promised by the West to help poorer countries deal with the effects of climate change has not been delivered.
Some believe that patterns of growth and development in India and China will automatically replicate a move towards Western living standards – allowing the poorest people to steadily improve their living standards and therefore greatly increase consumption.
But the reality has been that, in both countries, the neoliberal economic model has seen the gap between the rich and poor grow.
It is not true that the free market will produce an exact copy of the West in India and China – with billions overcoming poverty to indulge in the unsustainable lifestyle of the richer West – just as it is not true that the free market means that in the West both rich and poor pursue the same lifestyle.
If we continue with economic development based on the unsustainable model of free market capitalism we will face both environmental destruction, and growing inequality and instability
It’s crucial to reject the misinformation of our rulers, who seek to blame others in order to obscure their own role or to provide a cover for their own inaction. Putting the onus on China and India to stop climate change assumes that the West has already taken action. In fact emissions across the Western countries continue to grow.
The destruction of our environment is occurring because of the economic priorities of our system. It is because of the drive for profit inbuilt into the world economy, and those driving and benefiting from it are the rich of the world – wherever they locate themselves.
The answers in India and China both to climate change and development are the same as they are the world over – economic and social organisation based on need and environmental sustainability not blind competition in the pursuit of profit.
We should not be lining up to blame the ordinary people of India and China for climate change.
Instead we should be ready to make common cause with those around the world suffering the consequences of an environmentally unsustainable system and struggling to challenge it.