Globe with windmills and solar panels


Climate Influence Starts at Home

Over the summer break, some friends who subscribe to The Instigator challenged me with the following question: 

“What about China? Even if business leaders in the US follow your advice and pursue the ambitious corporate strategies to address climate change that you recommend, will it even matter? China keeps building coal plants. Unless that stops, the situation is hopeless.”

Let me preface my response by saying I generally find this question bothersome. I can’t help but hear it as an excuse to justify doing very little about climate in the United States.

Nevertheless, China’s carbon trajectory does present the biggest climate challenge. And addressing it successfully has important implications for climate strategies everywhere.   

My friends are right in another way too (and we don’t talk about this enough) —  progress in addressing the climate challenge has been terrible to date. We’ve been talking about dealing with the climate threat for 30-plus years, but global emissions just keep going up.

First, let’s look at the need. 

The Big Picture: Yes, What China Does Will Be Critical 

China’s climate impact is huge. 

China is by far the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gasses (GHGs).  

Total global emissions (including land use and forests) reached 52 gigatons of CO2 equivalent in 2019.  

China’s contribution was some 14 billion tons — 27% of the global total.  

That means China’s total emissions were more than 2X that of the second highest emitter. (Guess who? Yep, the US with 11% of the total.)  And China’s emissions were more than 3X third-place India, which was responsible for 6.6%.   

Another way to look at it: China’s emissions exceed those of all OECD countries combined.

But China’s population is huge.  

True. So let’s consider per capita emissions. Again, bad news. 

China’s emissions have grown so fast that, on a per capita basis, the country now stands as the second-highest ranking emitter at 10.5 tons/capita.  It will likely overtake the OECD average this year.  

Lest any American readers get smug, the US remains the highest per capita emitter in the world by far at 17.6 tons/capita.