North

OPINION | 'China first' is a bad climate argument

Brett Chandler addresses people who say Canada need not address climate change until major emitters like China make a dent. Chandler argues that China is taking climate change seriously and dealing with it effectively.

Brett Chandler argues that China is taking climate change seriously and dealing with it effectively

Steel factories emitting pollution in Hancheng, Shaanxi province. Brett Chandler argues that China is taking climate change seriously and dealing with it effectively. (Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images)
Like many, I find myself spending a lot of time online debating climate change.

I'll admit, I'm concerned and I have found myself entering many digital donnybrooks on the subject over the years.

I've noticed an evolution in the online arguments against climate action in the past couple of years. Not long ago the predominant argument seemed to be, "it isn't even happening," but as the evidence has mounted to a point past ignoring, the messaging has turned to things like "CO2 is great for plants!" and, "b-b-but what's the point of reducing carbon emissions in Canada when China generates so much???"

That last point seems really attractive. China is the most populous country in the world (1.41 billion, according to trusty Wikipedia) and the largest carbon emitter since 2006, much of it due to coal-fired power generation. Canada's carbon output pales in comparison, so it's an easy question to ask: if a big emitter like China isn't dealing with its emissions, then what good does it do for a small emitter like Canada to reduce its output?

The premise of the question is faulty. For one thing, China actually is dealing with its carbon emissions. The Chinese government has made a commitment not just to the world by signing the Paris climate agreement, but to its own people. Chinese cities have been beset by heavy smog for decades and the government has promised people relief from this hazard.

[It's] the moral equivalent of hiding under the covers and saying 'wake me when it's over.

China has also repeatedly recognized the threat of climate change and acknowledged the role of CO2 emissions and has committed to reduction targets. China is pursuing non-carbon energy in an entire portfolio that includes renewables like solar and wind, and an ambitious nuclear program.

Even many of China's infamous coal-fired power plants are now being converted to burn cleaner natural gas. 

Is it working? In the past several years China's energy demand has grown by 4 per cent annually, but its carbon emissions only grew by 0.9 per cent in 2017, after "three years of low or zero growth" (according to the European Union's 2018 report, "Fossil CO2 emissions of all world countries").

Ideally, those emissions wouldn't have grown at all, but the gap between the growth of energy consumption and the growth of emissions is good evidence that the Chinese are reducing their overall carbon intensity and are on track to meet their targets.

The Syncrude oil sands extraction facility is reflected in a tailings pond near Fort McMurray, Alta., in 2014. Chandler argues that even though Canada has only 0.5 per cent of the world's population, we produce 1.6 per cent of its carbon emissions. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

Canada's emissions double China's

The evidence suggests not only that the Chinese take the threat of climate change seriously, they are also dealing with it effectively. In the process, they're becoming the dominant supplier of renewable energy technology to the rest of the world.

Even so, Canada with its much smaller population does emit considerably less carbon. It's worth pointing out, though, that according to that EU report, our per capita carbon emissions are double that of China's. In that regard, we may have more opportunity for reduction. And even though Canada has only 0.5 per cent of the world's population, we produce 1.6 per cent of its carbon emissions. I see a moral obligation to address carbon emissions just in that pair of numbers alone.

Carbon emissions and climate change are emerging as major issues as we prepare to vote this fall and it's crucial that we pay attention to the facts behind emotional arguments.

If Canada's emissions are too "trivial" to make the effort worthwhile, does that mean every country that emits less can use the same argument to put off carbon mitigation as well?

Claiming that Canada doesn't need to address carbon emissions until China does strikes me as the moral equivalent of hiding under the covers and saying "wake me when it's over."

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Brett Chandler is a Whitehorse Writer. He started @ClimateVoters on Twitter to advocate for climate action issues.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.