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"By shaping the narrative of climate change around nation-state competition, we won't get far."
During his one day at COP26, a showboating President Joe Biden couldn't help himself. Struggling to stay awake, the old fellow finally lumbered to the microphone. Once there, he took a cheap shot at President Xi and President Putin for not being physically present.
That's laughable. Biden needed several planes, a caravan of 30 plus cars and thousands of support staff to get there for one day. The carbon footprint of his trip matched the output of a small country. Meanwhile, President Xi and President Putin opted for an internet link. Which is greener?
Yet, on a more significant point, Biden sought to shape the climate conference as a blame game.
So, who is to blame for climate change? Unsurprisingly, the answer is neither straightforward nor particularly helpful, given that climate change doesn't respect borders. Even so, let me seek to address the issue, and I'll frame this discussion mostly around the U.S. versus China discourse to illustrate a few points.
First up, China is to blame. As the largest current emitter of greenhouse gases, China looks like the culprit.
But hang on a minute. Isn't that because China has the most people? Well, yes. China has 1.4 billion people, so it makes sense it would emit more than smaller countries. And when you look at greenhouse gas production per person, the U.S. tops the league. The average American produces nearly double the greenhouse gases as the average Chinese. Here is the data.
Then when you consider historical emissions, the chief culprit is the U.S. From 1751 to 2017, the U.S. produced 25% of all global emissions, the EU countries 22%, China 12.7%, and India 3%. And we know that historical emissions are closely linked to present day problems. Australia and the U.S. top the league for per capita emissions.
So you could argue that the West enjoyed an era of unfettered emissions, advanced their economies and now seeks to hold back others by restricting their use of fossil fuels. Is that fair?
That's not to say China shouldn't be slashing its greenhouse gas output. On the contrary, as China's economy grows and its people prosper, emissions per person will soon catch up with the West. That is an issue. But, let's also recognise that the West has displaced polluting industries to China to avoid domestic regulations.
Regarding the renewable energy mix, China and the U.S. are about the same at 10% and 9%, respectively.
So, it's evident that China needs to cut its reliance on fossil fuels and do that quick. That's recognised, with China building half of all the world's renewable energy plants in 2020.
Moreover, the country has doubled its renewable energy production in just two years. Besides producing more solar and wind turbines than anybody else, China accounts for 40% of the global share of electric car sales.
By shaping the narrative of climate change around nation-state competition, we won't get far. But, unfortunately, realpolitik and national interests will play a significant role. That's unavoidable.
For example, China sees itself at a different stage of development, reserving the right to bring greater prosperity to its people through economic growth. Are rich Western nations going to tell poor Asians they need to avoid becoming prosperous? That isn’t going work.
If COP26 follows the trajectory of previous climate conferences, we will hear plenty of commitments as world leaders pat themselves on the back. But then, reality kicks in; some obligations will be partially met, others will fade and be forgotten.
To illustrate the point, at the Paris 2015 climate conference, the developed countries agreed to fund $100 billion a year to fight climate change in the developing world. Yet, in the end, the target was missed and continues to be ignored.
Considering all the data, political factors, and the reality of the world order, at best, I can say everyone needs to do more, including China and the U.S.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.