Does China threaten the Environment?

If China did not exist as an excuse to avoid tackling Climate Change it would have to be invented.

In fact it has been invented, in a way. I cannot deny that China belches out a colossal volume of pollutants, but it is currently lifting people out of poverty in the most environmentally friendly way possible.

If Copenhagen overtly confirmed the West’s impotence in the face of rising emissions, the evidence of China’s efforts are a little more subtle so I hope you’ll let me explain. First of all though, the bad news.

The Guardian’s Datablog provides information comparing the energy consumption of China and the US. China has increased its consumption of energy almost threefold since 1990 and this is predicted to increase a lot more.


On a per capita basis, energy use per head of population, China has, dodgy national statistics notwithstanding, almost reached the average for the World; again, it is on a course to significantly overtake this.

So far, so bad. But now it is time for the good news.

There are lots of ways to produce wealth. The Soviet Union used lots of resources – more coal, more steel, more blood, more sweat, more tears, more everything – and for a while grew at an impressive pace, before running out of steam .

Other countries have found better ways to become rich, and it involves getting more output from a given amount of input. These are increases in Total Factor Productivity (TFP) and these are what make you and I rich, at least by historical or global standards.

In fact, TFP is so important that Robert Solow argues it has accounted for 80 percent of the long-term rise in U.S. per capita income with increased investment in capital explaining only the remaining 20 percent.

Between 1995-2005 (Hat Tip Duncan), of the 94 countries analysed China was ranked 5th in terms of rate of TFP growth. If we exclude countries which were recovering from the collapse of communism in Easter Europe, a one-off event, then no country enjoyed TFP growth like China did in the period.

That means that China got more growth, and more poverty alleviation, out of fewer inputs, and carbon emissions, than any other country.

There are two challenges facing mankind. One is poverty, something as old as time and which we only started beating 200 years ago, the other is Climate Change which is new and almost as big a threat.

Although far from perfect, China is doing everything we can reasonably expect and much more to tackle both. If we want to alleviate poverty and tackle Climate Change then we need to stop seeing China as a threat and view it as a blessing.

3 thoughts on “Does China threaten the Environment?

  1. OK, I know it’s an old post, but anyway… One thing I always think we should remember is that a significant proportion of China’s emissions are driven by manufacturing for export. Essentially, we in “the West” have simply outsourced a lot of our emissions (along with all those jobs). I think there’s a strong argument that emissions should be counted as the responsibility of the end-user rather than the producer.

    1. It is an old post, but welcome.

      My understanding is that the Chinese are well aware of this and these emissions are referred to as “embedded” emissions. Carbon production isn’t as important as carbon consumption, however, production is much much easier to measure.

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