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Expert's View
UPDATED: September 22, 2014 NO. 39 SEPTEMBER 25, 2014
Toxic Omissions
By Chen Ying

The New York Times published five reports in July and August detailing China's environmental pollution issues, including carbon dioxide emissions and "toxic haze." Given that Beijing will continue to suffer under heavy smog if change is not effected, we should not reject demonstrations of concern from abroad regarding the health of Chinese people. It should be noted, however, that these articles contain a number of generalizations and invalid arguments.

For instance, one of the reports, titled Persuading China to Act Fast on Climate Change, asserts that the most pressing issue regarding the slow action taken to combat climate change is "not whether the United States will manage to wean itself off of coal, or even how quickly the U.S. economy can reduce its reliance on fossil fuels," but "to what extent and under which conditions China will participate in the global effort to combat climate change." On these grounds, the report concluded that the world must persuade China to cut its emissions.

Together with the skyrocketing economic growth of many developing nations, the quantity of these countries' greenhouse gas emissions has been continuously increasing and accounts for a larger share in the world today than ever before. However, this does not change the fact that developed countries must acknowledge their historical and current responsibility for global climate change. According to the Fifth Assessment Report of the International Panel on Climate Change—a report which calculated the world's cumulative carbon emissions from 1751 to 2010 on the basis of carbon dioxide emitted solely through the burning of fossil fuels—developed countries account for around 70 percent of historical global carbon emissions. Meanwhile, if one adds carbon dioxide emissions generated from forestry and land utilization into consideration, the share of responsibility for developed nations drops to nearly 50 percent. As calculation of the latter category has great uncertainty, however, academic opinions are divided over the computation methodology.

Scientists were pointing out the harmful consequences of the greenhouse effect long before intergovernmental climate change negotiations were launched in 1990. As carbon dioxide can stay in the air for more than a century, the pollutant emissions spewed into the atmosphere even during the Industrial Revolution still linger today, affecting the world's climate system.

China recognizes the necessity of pursuing a path of low-carbon development, and is starting down this path of its own volition. The country has participated actively in international efforts to deal with climate change and has contributed greatly to the slowing of global warming. Shortly before the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, China voluntarily proposed cutting its carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 40-45 percent by 2020 from its 2005 levels. In 2013, the indicator dropped 28.6 percent against 2005 levels, equaling a decrease of 2.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

The United States, as the world's leading industrialized country, not only backed out of the Kyoto Protocol, but has made no progress in its domestic climate legislation. Its carbon emission reduction target of 17 percent by 2020 from its 2005 levels, announced before the Copenhagen conference, has been a disappointment to the international community. The United States should "practice what it preaches" when dealing with climate change. The country is expected to fulfill its international duties, including drastically cutting emissions at home and providing developing countries with funds or technologies.

Toxic emissions can be reduced not only in the manufacturing sector but with regards to consumption. Yet it seems ludicrous that a report titled What Do Chinese Dumplings Have to Do With Global Warming? would come to the conclusion that "of all the shifts in lifestyle that threaten the planet right now, perhaps not one is as important as the changing way that Chinese people eat," based solely on the boom of refrigerators in the country. Even the author admitted that at least 70 percent of all the food Americans eat each year passes through a cold chain, as opposed to less than a quarter of China's meat supply. Refrigerators are necessary domestic appliances that have greatly improved living and safety standards. Technology that improves the quality of life of a population should be accessible to all.

China should stick to its traditional virtue of frugality, especially given the pressing need to curb toxic emissions, even as the quality of life enjoyed by its people improves dramatically. The United States, for its part, urgently needs to examine and address the high-carbon lifestyle to which Americans have long been accustomed.

The author is deputy director of the Research Center for Sustainable Development at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

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