USA Today had an article last week with the worst good news for carbon emissions that I’ve read in a while. The good news was that U.S. emissions fell to the lowest rate since the mid-1990s, dropping 200 million tons, or 3.8 percent. The bad news is that world carbon emissions rose by 1.4 percent in 2012 to a record high of 31.6 billion tons.
China is now the world’s largest emitter of carbon, with growth in emissions up 300 million tons or 3.8 percent since 2011. Developing countries now account for 60 percent of global emissions from energy use, up from 45 percent in 2000.
So what does that tell us? Does it mean that the people who have resisted any national energy policy for the United States, much less having the United States sign international carbon treaties are right – there is nothing that the United States can do that makes any difference? On a happier note, does it mean that the United States is actually doing quite well, making steady progress towards the goal of reducing its carbon emissions to sustainable levels?
I would answer those questions “no” and “no.” There are no simple answers in the search for sustainability. At a headlines-level, the report is bewildering and disheartening. But the report provides layers of data, precisely because achieving carbon sustainability is not going to be possible if you don’t look behind the headlines.
To understand what is happening and what it will take to achieve sustainability, I have to think back to the China I first saw 20 years ago. I made my first trip to China in 1992 for a joint U.S.-Chinese conference on land use and the environment. The U.S. delegation was composed of people like me; more interested in seeing China than they were capable of managing the sort of growth it faced. The Chinese delegation, on the other hand, were an amazing collection of people charged with addressing some of the hardest challenges in land use planning ever approached by humans. (I sat next to the public works director of Shanghai at one session, and we chatted about how Shanghai treats its municipal water. The answer to that question: every way it can, and at least then, you still couldn’t drink it.)
The conference was shortly after the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. For the previous decade American broadcasters had reported many times about bread lines in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The Chinese at the conference were openly disdainful of their Eastern European counterparts. (“What were those people thinking?! How could they have focused on building weapons to fight the United State sand left their people hungry?! They got what they deserved!”) The Chinese Communist Party had started in 1948 with a desperately poor country, in which famine regularly killed millions of people and families sold their daughters into slavery. As of the early 1990s, China was still much poorer than the United States, but there had been immense progress. It was obvious that food was plentiful. The housing stock was substandard by U.S. measures, but people were housed. Children were being educated. When people were sick, there was a doctor to go to – whether or not that doctor had access to modern facilities or medicines. People were optimistic – not because of what they had, but because they believed that life was improving. The Chinese leadership had concluded that the way they would avoid the fate of their Eastern European counterparts was to continue to meet the rising expectations of their people. There was a lot to not like about China’s leaders – but they had a strategy and they were working hard to implement it.
But – as of my first trip to China, electricity was rationed by apartment building. At the first of the month, the building got a defined amount of electricity. If it was used up by the 20th of the month, then the lights went off until the next month. Talk about peer pressure! No one was going to have their neighbors accuse them of being the reason the lights went off. Each apartment room had a single 40 watt bulb in the center. There were no consumer electronics; no dishwashers, washing machines or dryers; no boom boxes. Every apartment did have a small black and white TV, but that was the limit of their electricity-consuming luxuries. Cities were dark at night; there was almost no street lighting. The vast majority of the population commuted by bicycle. Most deliveries were by bicycle. (Indeed, we watched two guys with bicycles haul a steel I-beam along a darkened city street one night.) There were only about 10,000 automobiles in the entire country and the planners were terrified of what would happen if people who wanted them could buy automobiles, because having designed their cities for the bicycle, they would be choked by an increase in cars that would be less than one month’s production for American car makers in the U.S.
It was clear then, as has happened since, that China could not meet the rising expectations of its people without enormous increases in energy use. People might have been satisfied for the moment in the early 1990s, but as people have more money, it is human nature to want to move beyond having enough food and a roof over your head, to wanting the things you see others have – like cars, music, washing machines and hot water heaters, all of which were nonexistent for the Chinese population at the time.
So turning back to where we are today, the IEA report of country-by-country statistics on emissions, and particular carbon dioxide emissions per capita and the carbon dioxide emissions per GDP, provides a richer understanding of what it going on.
In 2012, the United States emitted 17.31 tons of carbon dioxide per person. That compares to 5.43 tons per person in China, 1.39 tons per person in India, 3.85 tons per person in Mexico, 5.52 tons per person in France, 8.64 tons per person in Ireland, 6.50 tons per person in Italy and 9.32 tons per person in Germany. The United States is not the most consumptive country in the world per capita – oil rich countries like the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait use more. But of the countries we want to be compared with, the United States uses a lot more energy per capita than anyone else. That is why developing nations say that they won’t do anything to harm their economic growth unless the United States does more to reduce its energy consumption. You can understand that; so long as each American emits three times as much carbon as each Chinese and twelve times as much carbon as each Indian, the Chinese and Indians resent being lectured to.
But there is another statistic that is also significant, which is carbon dioxide emissions per GDP. There the United States emits 0.41 kilograms per 2005 dollar of GDP while China emits 1.89 kilograms and India emits 1.3 kilograms per 2005 dollar of GDP. Comparing nations in the developing world to the world’s richest nations (and leaving aside oil-rich countries from the developing world, which tend to be very heavy energy users, presumably because they can be), the economies in the developing world are more energy consumptive for what they get. They still have less – but they emit more carbon per dollar of what they have.
Therein may lay the twin approaches that allow a path towards sustainability. On the one hand, the United States must continue to reduce its per capita energy use. So long as it is far above most of Western Europe and the entire developing world which has taken over as the primary source of emission growth, the United States will be hampered in its ability to either lead or persuade. But the United States can and should also do what it does best, which is to innovate ways to make the economies of the developing world more efficient. American innovation can help countries that are building their economies do so in ways that make them energy efficient from the beginning, rather than depending on hugely expensive retrofitting once they have been built. Developing countries need help in continuing to grow their economies while growing them efficiently.
It is in America’s interest for the developing world to develop successfully. A prosperous China, India, Russia, South America and elsewhere will be more peaceful and better trading partners than those countries ever were when they were impoverished, or will ever be in our shrinking globe if they do not successfully develop. We cannot begrudge the people of the developing world the things we take for granted in our own world. We can, however, help them develop their economies to be energy efficient, and in doing so, both capitalize on the wealth that will be spread to us by their growing wealth, and reduce their carbon emissions as we reduce our own.