dated 9 February 2008 | issue 2087
Posted: 6.05pm Tuesday 5 February 2008
Climate chaos and the global south
Economic growth in India and China is portrayed as a key contributor
to climate change. But, argues Suzanne Jeffery, the problem is mainly
caused by the global rich not poor countries
It was announced last year that China had overtaken the US as the
world's biggest emitter of carbon dioxide. The statistics, which the
Netherlands Environmental Assessment admitted there was "some
uncertainty about", nevertheless reinforced the idea that economic
growth in poorer countries is the real driver of climate change.
Climate talks in Bali, Indonesia, last December were hailed as a major
success, with all 190 governments - including the US - signing up
to further talks based around "substantial cuts in greenhouse gas
But just days later the US administration backtracked, saying the
talks had not adequately addressed the responsibilities of
As millions of people around the world have become aware of the causes
and consequences of climate change, the biggest polluter - the US -
has changed its propaganda.
Instead of disputing the scientific evidence for climate change, it is
now shifting the blame for environmental destruction onto poorer
In particular China has become the big bogeyman, with India not far
behind. As a consequence, the responsibility of the rich Western
countries is hugely downplayed.
The British government, which presents itself as a global leader in
the fight against climate chaos, reinforces these ideas.
Recently Tony Blair said without any sense of irony, "If we shut
down all of Britain's emissions tomorrow, the growth in China will
make up the difference within two years. So we've got to be
realistic about how much obligation we put on ourselves."
The attitude of Gordon Brown is not markedly different. Comments about
British obligations are usually preceded with the reassuring
statistics that Britain accounts for only 2 percent of global
What does not make the same kind of headline news is the amount of
greenhouse gases emitted per person (per capita) in China and
It is important to look at per capita emissions because they paint a
very different picture of the real contribution played by the average
person in poorer countries.
Put simply, India emits 1.1 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person, China
3.5 tonnes, Britain 9.6 tonnes and the US a whopping 20.2 tonnes per
person. The global average is 4.2 tonnes - much higher than both
India and China.
The UN Human Development Report last year pointed out that the US
state of Texas has higher emissions than the whole of sub-Saharan
Africa, and that 19 million people in New York state have a bigger
carbon footprint than 766 million people in the world's poorest 50
To ignore per capita emissions in favour of total emissions per
country also overlooks the way in which, in a globalised economy,
multinationals have played a central role in the rapid growth of the
Chinese and Indian economies.
The growth in India and China in particular is one that Western
corporations have hugely benefited from and have consciously driven in
a scramble for cheap labour and markets.
Christian Aid points out that, "While only 2.13 percent of the
world's carbon dioxide emissions emanate from Britain's domestic
economy, through the process of globalisation carbon dioxide is
emitted around the world on Britain's behalf in India, China, Africa
It adds, "Just as we have outsourced the dirty end of our industry
to poorer countries and invested in those countries to get them to
produce for us, so we have outsourced our carbon dioxide
The well-respected Tyndall Centre for climate change research arrived
at similar conclusions last year. It found that net exports from China
to the West accounted for 23 percent of China's emissions.
China produces 60 percent of the world's DVD players, 80 percent of
shoes, 70 percent of photocopiers, 80 percent of bicycles and 30
percent of TVs.
The Tyndall Centre notes that, "not only are industrialised
countries historically responsible for the majority of carbon
emissions to date, but industrialised countries may also have a
significant responsibility for driving the rapid growth in emissions
from industrialising countries such as China".
The bulk of the companies driving the growth in China and hoping to
benefit from it are from the West.
The same is true on a smaller scale in India. Ford Motors have joined
a long list of car companies committing investment and planning
aggressive expansion in the Indian market - a list that includes
Fiat, Nissan, Renault, Volvo, Volkswagen, Suzuki and Hyundai.
Despite the newfound concern for the planet's future professed by
many major companies, it is business as usual when it comes to chasing
profits, regardless of the consequences.
There is a further irony in the way that India and China have become
the scapegoats for global warming.
While politicians in the West have only recently been forced to wake
up to climate change, many poorer countries have been trying to cope
with the consequences of it for decades.
India is one of the countries worst hit by climate change and is
suffering from big temperature rises. Agricultural scientists have
noted that these rises have caused wheat yields to drop by one tenth
in a year.
Average temperature rises are also blamed for a rise in flash
During the flash floods in Britain in the summer of 2007, India also
experienced floods - but the destructive impact was much greater
because of poverty and lack of strong infrastructure.
China is increasingly regarded as an environmental disaster area. It
has 20 of the world's most polluted cities. 10 percent of Chinese
gross domestic product is currently spent on dealing with the impact
of this pollution.
According to the UN, one person in 19 in the world's poorest
countries is at risk from the effects of climate change, compared with
one in 1,500 in the West.
Money promised by the West to help poorer countries deal with the
effects of climate change has not been delivered.
Some believe that patterns of growth and development in India and
China will automatically replicate a move towards Western living
standards - allowing the poorest people to steadily improve their
living standards and therefore greatly increase consumption.
But the reality has been that, in both countries, the neoliberal
economic model has seen the gap between the rich and poor grow.
It is not true that the free market will produce an exact copy of the
West in India and China - with billions overcoming poverty to
indulge in the unsustainable lifestyle of the richer West - just as
it is not true that the free market means that in the West both rich
and poor pursue the same lifestyle.
If we continue with economic development based on the unsustainable
model of free market capitalism we will face both environmental
destruction, and growing inequality and instability
It's crucial to reject the misinformation of our rulers, who seek to
blame others in order to obscure their own role or to provide a cover
for their own inaction. Putting the onus on China and India to stop
climate change assumes that the West has already taken action. In fact
emissions across the Western countries continue to grow.
The destruction of our environment is occurring because of the
economic priorities of our system. It is because of the drive for
profit inbuilt into the world economy, and those driving and
benefiting from it are the rich of the world - wherever they locate
The answers in India and China both to climate change and development
are the same as they are the world over - economic and social
organisation based on need and environmental sustainability not blind
competition in the pursuit of profit.
We should not be lining up to blame the ordinary people of India and
China for climate change.
Instead we should be ready to make common cause with those around the
world suffering the consequences of an environmentally unsustainable
system and struggling to challenge it.