Western rulers are attempting to deflect responsibility by obscuring their part in pushing up China’s carbon emissions, argues Sadie Robinson
Bitter rows over who is responsible for climate change lie behind much of the dithering by world leaders in the run up to the United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen next month.
The leaders of richer countries ask why they should cut carbon emissions when developing nations are increasing theirs.
They have singled out China as the major culprit for climate change.
China’s carbon emissions are indeed increasing dramatically – they have doubled since 2001.
But behind the spin lies a more complicated picture.
Western governments are using China as a smokescreen to hide their own culpability and to excuse their pathetic inaction.
Simply looking at China’s emissions as a country obscures the role that the West plays in creating them.
China’s rising emissions are largely down to the rapid expansion of coal-fired power stations. This is directly linked to the fact that many Western companies have effectively outsourced their emissions to China.
They have rushed to open manufacturing plants in China to take advantage of lower operating costs.
This phenomenon has grown to such an extent that there is even a word for it – “China-fication”. As US trade magazine Industry Week put it last year, “Over the past ten years, China’s manufacturing landscape has changed dramatically.
“China-fication is transplanting to China what you do well in manufacturing in the West, while exploiting the unique competitive aspects of the Chinese market.”
China-fication is a growing industry in itself. New companies have sprung up specifically offering services and advice to multinational firms wanting to develop manufacturing plants in China.
And these plants are largely powered by coal.
The West has also played a role in boosting China’s emissions by using it as a cheap source of goods.
The Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research found that export manufacturing made up around half of China’s 45 percent rise in carbon emissions between 2002 and 2005.
A major study published in the Nature Geoscience journal last week reached similar conclusions.
It found that the global growth in emissions since 2000 was largely driven by growth in China – but also pointed to the role of the West.
It showed that global emissions rose by 671 million tons between 2007 and 2008.
But a quarter of this resulted from Western countries buying manufactured goods from China and other developing countries.
As Gregg Marland, a co-author of the study, put it, “We’re shipping our emissions offshore.”
The US remains by far the largest per capita emitter of carbon. Every person in the US emits an average of around 20 tons of carbon per year – compared with 5.8 tons for every person in China.
And the people responsible for wrecking the planet are the same whichever country they are operating in – the rich and powerful, and those with vested interests in making money from polluting industries.
Meanwhile those who suffer are the poorest.
Linfen City in China’s Shanxi Province, south west of Beijing, is the most polluted city in the world.
Two thirds of infants in Linfen suffer from respiratory diseases. Their life expectancy is ten years lower than the Chinese average.
Linfen resident Jiang Yafeng explains, “Our whole family is constantly ill. My husband and my two sisters all have trouble breathing.
“I often feel a burning in my throat. And this dry cough is almost normal.
“Every day we breathe in another portion of poison.”
And there is another tragic story behind the expansion of coal-fired power. Some 3,215 people died in coal mine accidents across China in 2008.
That, unbelievably, was a good year – with deaths down 15 percent on 2007.
Meanwhile mine owners are raking in huge profits. The main street of Linfen is lined with diamond shops – a reflection of the immense wealth of the mine owners.
The West has outsourced the dirty bits of its production to cut costs and shift the pollution elsewhere.
To divert blame for climate change onto China is hypocritical and wrong – and we should not fall for it.