As part of my seminar work at university recently, we were tasked with acting out a mock debate between China and the United States, as though we were their respective leaders attempting to form an international agreement on climate change and emissions, all COP-like. Three of us were labelled China (me) and the other three the US, and for two weeks we prepared our sides of the argument with the ideas of fairness, equality and discussing topics which are rarely touched upon in the real world.
Now, our goal was to duke it out for 20 minutes or so, each bringing out our biggest guns on the topics of economy, climate policy, energy and poverty, with the ultimate goal of first debating who bore the better position on the global stage, before forming a bilateral framework to bring the rest of the world on board. Easy task eh! But fun nonetheless.
Our lecturer, an environmental barrister who has seen his fair share of global conventions and knows how they work and (mostly) don’t work, and was keen that we focus on one or two key attributes of a fair debate on this topic. Firstly, historical emissions, the idea that a figure can be derived to demonstrate how much greenhouse gas emissions had been accumulated over time by each industrialising country, generally from 1850 until the present. Secondly, the intent to damage, or mens rea, and associated legal issues such as liability were to be included, as these are generally ignored or swept under the rug in the conventions we’ve come to know and hate.
And who do you think holds the crown of the highest historical emissions between the US and China? Why the US of course, by a margin of about 220,000Gt of CO2, maxing out at ~340,000Gt, almost 30% of the entire worldwide past emissions accounted for. China on the other hand is responsible for around 9% of the share, and much of that has been in the last 30-40 years of rampant coal consumption and becoming the ‘manufacturer of the world’, a moniker the US has had much use out of. When you consider what we know of climate science and carbon dioxide today, that fantastically large proportion of emissions resulting from the States puts pretty much everything else into perspective, not least China’s emissions.
China has tried to use this against the US before, claiming that they should pay up for all the dirty CO2 and the years of unabated, joyful economic growth it brought with it; if China is to be expected to slow growth to mitigate climate change, then the US should compensate all those who have and will be affected by that 30% historical share, i.e. the entire planet. When they brought this demand to the table, the US used their secret weapon to shoot it down instantaneously, quickly brushing it out of sight before anything serious came of it. By claiming ignorance effectively, the US leaders merely stated that they could not have possibly known fossil fuel burning was damaging the environment as we now know, and to ask them to pay compensation for anything earlier than, say, the 1980s would be ludicrous. This is despite the fact that we as a society knew these emissions were damaging at least decades earlier, and certainly by the early 1970s, when the wider scientific community began studying the effects of carbon dioxide and other pollutants.