The world (and planet) is waiting for the US

Concerns about China and India's commitment to climate change are misplaced. We should focus on the US.

Concerns about China and India’s commitment to climate change are misplaced. We should focus on the US.

On the Global Dashboard blog, David Steven says that he sees “absolutely no signs of Chinese leadership internationally.” But President Hu Jintao of China said in a keynote speech to the UN General Assembly in September that he wants to reduce carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP from 2005 levels by 2020 by a “notable margin.” And as Julian L Wong notes at China Dialogue, “senior Chinese officials have recently given public assurance of China’s desire to peak its emissions ‘as early as possible’.”

As the last round of UN climate talks before Copenhagen begins today, Left Foot Forward examines what exactly China is offering and how it shapes up in comparison to that other major player, namely the US.

  1. While the US has made much of Obama’s newly established fuel economy standards for cars, the Chinese have already reached the level of efficiency that the US only aims to achieve by 2016. Meanwhile, US citizens have 26 more private cars per person than Chinese citizens. (Figures from US Census Bureau and the Chinese government.)
  2. China has set a national goal for 15 per cent of all its energy to come from renewable energy sources by 2020, the US has no renewable energy targets at a Federal level. Indeed, 28 of US states have set renewable portfolio standards at variable levels with variable target years.
  3. While China directed 38 per cent of its stimulus package towards green measures, the US directed just 12 per cent.

This is all despite the fact that the US has a much greater capacity, and a much greater historical responsibility, to cut its emissions. China is still a developing country. The US has emitted seven times more CO2 emissions per person than China since 1990. The UN lists China as 81st on its 2008 Human Development Index while the US ranks 12th.

However, David Steven saves most of his criticism for India, which he describes as “notoriously rubbish at international climate talks.” But in this recent and comprehensive post from US blog Climate Progress, three analysts from the Center for American Progress describe how India has offered “new hope” to the Copenhagen process. In particular, they note:

“India has adopted a comprehensive climate change action plan, which, among other things, creates a market-based scheme for the trading of energy efficiency certificates that is worth an estimated $15 billion, sets energy efficiency standards for home appliances and buildings, puts in place fuel economy standards for automobiles, and aims for the world’s largest installed solar photovoltaic capacity at 20 gigawatts by 2020, which is equivalent to the capacity of 20 new nuclear power plants.

“India is also the world’s fifth largest installer of wind energy capacity, and Indian company Suzlon is one of the world’s leading wind energy companies. The national government is giving serious consideration to enacting national renewable electricity standards, and at least a dozen progressive Indian states have already set their own requirements, ranging from 0.5 to 10 percent.”

They add:

“Let us not forget that India’s per capita emissions are just 7 percent that of the United States’. And some 400 to 600 million of India’s 1.1 billion population is without or only has limited access to electricity, which makes the country resistant to capping carbon emissions ahead of the United States.”

In a nutshell, it is pretty clear here at the UN talks in Barcelona that it is not China and India that the world is waiting for on climate change. It is the US.

Joss Garman is a climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace and a co-founder of Plane Stupid. He is blogging in a personal capacity from the Barcelona climate talks.

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