Who’s to blame for greenhouse gas emissions: China or the States?

China now emits more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year from human activities than any other country. It overtook the United States in 2006 or 2007.

Many argue that until China does something to significantly address its emissions there is little point in other countries doing anything.

There are some challenges with this way of thinking, however. For example, it is easy for everyone to find a statistical reason to absolve themselves of responsibility, based on boundary definitions.

China may argue that the boundaries should be drawn at OECD / non-OECD countries. As OECD countries still emit more CO2 than non-OECD countries, there is a legitimate argument that the focus should be on OECD countries.

A more absurd boundary definition could be gender-based: males are responsible for far more emissions than females, so females need not bother about their emissions.

Or perhaps the focus could be on the type of activity, absolving land-use changes of their responsibility – or perhaps natural gas.

Now, it makes sense for the boundaries to be defined along the lines of jurisdictional boundaries, assuming that the best way of addressing the problem of greenhouse gas emissions is regulation.

But does it make sense to assume that national boundaries are the logical place to draw comparisons, regardless of respective national populations? Probably not, otherwise the implication is that until tiny Luxemburg overtakes China’s total annual emissions, the inhabitants of Luxemburg can do whatever they want with nobody entitled to ask any questions.

So which countries are the biggest emitters per capita? According to the Energy Information Administration, Gibraltar tops the list with 152 tonnes of CO2 emitted per person in 2009. This is somewhat meaningless, however, as Gibraltar’s total emissions are negligible.

The top 20 big emitters, contributing 80% of global emissions, all emit between 1 and 20 tonnes per person per year.

Out of these top 20 emitters Australia tops the list of per capita emissions, with 20 tonnes per person per year. China only emits 6 tonnes per person per year.

Of course it would not make sense that global focus should be on Australia – or on Gibraltar for that matter – in terms of actually mitigating the risks of climate change.

If only one country could be chosen as the focus of attention, it probably would make sense to pick China on the evidence presented so far.

That probably wouldn’t be very fair, however, from another point of view, and that is the historical perspective.

Since industrialisation, the United States has by far emitted more CO2 than any other country. It will take many decades for China to overtake the US in total cumulative emissions. Up to 2006, China had emitted a grand total of 101 billion tonnes of CO2 compared to the United States total of 334 billion tonnes.

But again, in terms of minimising emissions going forward, it wouldn’t make sense to cap all countries at the level of total cumulative emissions (or per capita cumulative emissions) of the United States, as the result would be excessive emissions.

There is yet another complicating factor, and that is the patterns of global trade, production and consumption. Much of the emissions in China and India are associated with production of goods consumed in the United States and other OECD countries. This factor also tends toward shifting the focus toward the United States and OECD countries for action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

How can we begin to work together to address this major global issue? This question has occupied many of the greatest minds and international negotiators through several rounds of international negotiations. There have not been any significant results to date.

What could the Bible contribute to this question? There is a biblical principle of united action, valuing diversity, that could very well be applied to this problem. It is found in 1 Corinthians 12:

12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

15 Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

To conclude, I believe that each part of global society is responsible for reducing emissions within its sphere of control, working together with other parts to ensure the best outcomes for all. Each household can do all it can to reduce its emissions, whether the household is in China, the US, Luxemburg or somewhere in Africa. Likewise each organisation, corporation or industry. Again, each district, province, state or region. And of course each country. Some need more help than others. Rather than pointing fingers of blame, let’s work together on this at all levels where we have control or influence.

Thankfully God promises a future planet where we won’t be worried about greenhouse emissions and climate change. But in the meantime, it makes sense to be wise stewards of the planet in its present reality.