But what about China?

Photo by Chuttersnap

“The climate fight will be won or lost in countries like China and India, not here in the UK – we’re a tiny fraction of the problem and already leading the world in our carbon reductions. So why risk our jobs and economy? Why limit our lives? Why disrupt our cities with demonstrations when the real problem is elsewhere?”

With just 2% of global emissions (and falling), the UK’s efforts to combat climate change might be considered fairly irrelevant. Especially in comparison to nations like China – one-sixth of the world’s population, yet one-third of the world’s carbon emissions (and climbing). So why should we in the UK worry ourselves if the real battle will be fought in developing nations? Here’s why:

Today’s climate is yesterday’s emissions

Firstly, the devastating impact of emissions is accumulative, and we in the UK have been spewing out CO2 since the dawn of industrialisation. The lives we enjoy today are built upon a heavily polluting past, so we bear a direct responsibility for the present climate. If we don’t show recognition of that fact and play our part, nationally and internationally, we’ll rightly lose what little global credibility we have left when it comes to pushing others to do the same.


Another oft-cited fact is that, since we’ve outsourced so much of our manufacturing, we’ve also outsourced our emissions.

“Emissions associated with imports from China… in 2016… were 276% higher than in 1997.”

The UK’s Carbon Footprint 1997-2016, DEFRA

As much as half of the UK’s climate footprint comes from imports – from the EU, developing nations and elsewhere. As long as we keep buying, buying, buying to feed our consumer hunger, we’re fuelling carbon-intensive factories and power stations around the world. And when you factor in those imports into our emissions total (to say nothing of aviation, shipping and other ‘non-territorial’ emissions so frequently excluded), we’re perhaps not the climate leaders we’d like to think.

Per capita v. per country

Especially when you measure emissions per capita. A larger population inevitably emits more, particularly as it develops. So while China may currently be the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and by a long way…

… when it’s balanced out across the population, things look quite different:

(LUCF refers to Land Use Change and Forestry)

Admittedly, these figures are from 2011, but they make the point – as individuals, we’re hardly in a position to be complacent. (They also show how important it is that the Trump administration wakes up to reality.)

You can read more about the different ways of measuring emissions here.

Small, but not insignificant

There’s also the point that, while UK emissions may just be a small fraction of the whole, we’re still one of the largest emitters in the EU, which is itself the world’s third-largest emitter after the US and China. Add our small fraction to the same relatively small fraction from a handful of other countries around the world – not forgetting aviation and shipping – and it quickly becomes a very significant amount. 2% matters.

The future’s green

Besides (and here’s the argument that tends to sway even those not persuaded by the moral case) there are huge benefits to be gained from taking action now. The green economy offers immense opportunity. China already recognises that, with a whopping 45% of global renewable energy investment. They might currently be the world’s worst polluter, but with their resources and political structure they’ve also shown themselves capable of the sort of rapid change that’s needed. Some recent studies have even put them 10 years ahead of their Paris climate pledge.

What better way could there be for us in the UK to influence other nations to shift away from carbon-intensive living than to demonstrate the economic benefits of transitioning away from fossil fuels? (At the same time, we should surely be bringing an end to our contradictory financial support for fossil fuel projects abroad.)

One planet

Whether you live in China or the UK, the scale of the climate crisis is such that we’ve all got to do more. We’ve got to identify our high-carbon activities and curtail them, and then use our voices to catalyse others – our friends and colleagues, politicians and manufacturers – to do the same. Because even if you’re not ready to join those demonstrations in the street, you can’t kid yourself that the fight isn’t on your doorstep.

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