Scott Morrison downplays Australia’s total emissions compared to China’s, but that’s not the whole story

Chinese President Xi Jinping did not reach the Glasgow negotiations, but instead spoke at the global climate conference from home.

The absence of the leader of the world’s largest emitter was noted by US President Joe Biden, who sowed doubts about China’s commitment to emission reduction.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison regularly highlights the large volume of China’s emissions and its key role in tackling the global problem of climate change.

He cites it as evidence of Australia’s relatively small contribution to the problem of global warming, which gives itself a rationale for not introducing more ambitious emission reduction plans.

But what about emissions from China and Australia? And how does that affect the global climate negotiations taking place in Glasgow?

What are China’s emissions and how do they compare to Australia’s?

In 2020, China emitted 13.8 gigatons of carbon dioxide and similar greenhouse gases. That is 13,800,000,000,000,000 tons.

By comparison, Australia emitted 512 megatons, which is 512,000,000 tons.

If all the zeros make your eyes run in water, we can say it in another way that has a few fewer: China emits about 27,000 times more greenhouse gases than Australia.

Climate Watch – a project of the World Resources Institute and used by the World Bank – maintains a database of national emissions based on a wide range of sources.

Its most comprehensive comparison is based on 2018 data. It shows China as the largest emitting nation, responsible for 23.9 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Australia ranks as the 16th largest emitter, responsible for 1.3 per cent.

Total annual emissions 1990 - 2018
Total annual emissions per. country between 1990 and 2018.(Climate watch)

China emits far more than Australia, but per person Australia is much worse

The large amount of China’s emissions is largely due to the country’s population size.

By using the same 2018 figures, the emissions per. per capita – ie emissions per. person – in China 8.40 tons.

In Australia it is 24.79 tons per. person, one of the 10 largest emitters in the world, behind oil-dependent countries such as Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait.

China’s emissions per person is closest to Slovenia and Zimbabwe.

In comparison, the United States emits 17.74 tons per

Emissions per  inhabitant 1990 - 2018 (Source Climate Watch)
Emissions per land pr. per capita between 1990 and 2018.(Climate watch)

Both Australia and China have committed to achieving net zero emissions, but what about now and then?

Where Australia has committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050, China is aiming for 2060.

Australia has already begun to reduce emissions, while China has committed to reaching its emissions peak by 2030.

In Glasgow, both nations have updated their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) – the process by which countries commit themselves to reducing emissions – in line with the goal of limiting global warming to below 2.0 degrees Celsius and, ideally, to 1, 5 C.

In addition to the “net zero by 2050” target, Australia has committed to a number of technological targets aimed at lowering the cost of some reduction methods, such as carbon capture and storage, and low-emission production, such as green steel and hydrogen.

China’s updated NDC includes the beginning of a gradual phasing out of coal starting in 2025, although it is still commissioning new coal – fired power plants domestically.

It also promises to increase the use of renewable energy to about 25 percent and install 1.2 billion kilowatts of solar and wind power by 2030.

The Climate Action Tracker – an independent analysis that brings together the government’s climate efforts around the world – has rated the actions of both China and Australia as “very inadequate”.

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Scott Morrison’s full speech at the UN climate summit in Glasgow.

Biggest emitter today vs biggest emitter over time?

While China is now the largest annual emitter, it is not the biggest culprit when calculating the cumulative emissions from each nation over more than a century.

An analysis by a British-based organization, Carbon Brief, looked at carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions since the 1850s as it is a particularly stable greenhouse gas.

It found that China emitted 284 gigatons of CO2, while the United States released 509 gigatons in the same period, close to twice as much.

Australia’s contribution since 1850 amounts to 35 gigatons.

Countries with the largest cumulative emissions 1850 - 2021
Countries with the largest cumulative emissions 1850 – 2021.(ClimateBrief.org)

The historical picture is relevant because the build-up of greenhouse gases over time is directly linked to global warming.

International negotiations to limit climate change to 1.5 or 2.0 degrees warming deal with emissions from the last century as much as the current one.

Why does it not matter what Australia does when it is responsible for 1.3 percent of global emissions?

The core of the debate on climate action is the divide between developed and developing countries.

The United States, Britain, the EU and Australia are among the highly industrialized countries that have been emitting greenhouse gases for more than a century.

Despite its extraordinary economic growth in recent decades, China describes itself as a developing country in these debates, given its widespread industrialization – and significant emissions – started much later than other major economies.

In Glasgow, Special Climate Envoy Xie Zhenhua said China’s high emissions were due to its “special development phase” and said his country would accelerate emission reductions later.

Developing countries say they should have more time to reduce their emissions, as they have not had the same amount of time to enjoy the benefits of industrialization.

This is particularly relevant in countries such as India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been pushing to bring electricity to households that have never had a power connection before.

The Paris Agreement seeks to address inequality by providing funding to developing countries to help introduce renewable energy and adapt to climate change.

But not all the promised funding has come true, which increases the sense of injustice in developing countries.

Developing countries are among the biggest emitters, but if smaller, highly industrialized countries like Australia do not reduce their emissions, despite all their historical benefits, then what is the compulsion of other nations to act?

In a negotiation, it is not just about the numbers.

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