Vice Premier Zhang Gaoni, of China, addresses the United Nations Climate Summit, at U.N. headquarters. Pic: AP.

Vice Premier Zhang Gaoni, of China, addresses the United Nations Climate Summit, at U.N. headquarters. Pic: AP.

With Chinese President Xi Jinping’s absence looming large at the UN Climate Summit held in New York last week, showing Beijing’s commitment to global environment fell on China’s Vice Premier and, for the occasion, special envoy. He did not fail to deliver some powerful comments. Zhang Gaoli told the public that “China was the first among developing countries to formulate and implement a national climate change program,” and said that “China will announce post-2020 actions on climate change as soon as possible.”

The most interesting bit of information provided by Mr. Zhang was that China intends its total carbon dioxide emissions to peak “as early as possible,” words that were seen as a confirmation of the government’s commitment to improving China’s poor environmental record.

The Chinese government has indeed taken extra measures to clean up the country’s poor environmental record: a new law was passed last April to strengthen the legal framework for protecting the environment, and the government is investing in “green” technologies – notably in nuclear power plants.

These projects and the usual rhetoric aside, however, recent reports paint a grim picture. The latest was released on Sept. 21 by Global Carbon Project and points out that Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil fuel burning and cement production increased by 2.3 percent in 2013, and are now 61 percent above 1990 emissions, when the first assessment report was released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the United Nations General Assembly negotiations on a framework convention – which would eventually lead to the Kyoto Protocol – began.

According to the research, a change of the guard among polluters has taken place, too: whereas in 1990 about 62 percent of global emissions were emitted in developed countries, 34 percent in developing countries and 4 percent in bunker fuels used for international shipping and aviation, now 36 percent of emissions come from developed countries and 58 percent from developing ones. China has become by far the largest CO2 emitter in the world, accounting 28 percent of global emissions in 2013, while the USA made up 14 percent, the EU 10 percent and India 7 percent.

It is hardly surprising that CO2 emissions have shifted to developing countries: they are home to most of the world’s population, many of them grew at breakneck speed in the past two decades and some have become manufacturing hubs.

It is more surprising to discover that per capita emissions in China now top those of Europeans. The study shows that as of 2013, emissions per capita were 16.4 tonnes in the USA, 7.2 tonnes in China, 6.8 tonnes in the European Union and 1.9 tonnes in India. China was also the largest contributor to the increase in CO2 emissions between 2012 and 2013, the study says, accounting for 4.2 percent, while the United States grew by 2.9 percent and Europe declined by 1.8 per cent.

It is quite clear, then, that any serious plan to curb climate change will have to be agreed upon by Chinese policymakers, and US President Obama might have had that in mind when he stressed that “as the two largest economies and emitters in the world, we [China and the US] have a special responsibility to lead. That’s what big nations have to do.”

But differences do exist, as shown by an article published in China Daily which featured an interview with Zou Ji, a professor at the National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation. According him, “China and the EU cannot be compared in such a simple way, given their different stages of development and economic situations.” Professor Zou also argued that the EU, since the industrial revolution, has produced more cumulative emissions per capita than China.

The debate surrounding who should pay for current environmental problems is an old one. Should the burden fall on the shoulders of those – the developed, mostly western – countries which have polluted the most so far, but whose contribution will be dwarfed in the future, or should it be first and foremost a responsibility for developing countries, who bear less responsibility but whose emissions will soon be preeminent?

As the debate goes on, the earth keeps on warming up. Global Carbon Budget foresees a further 2.5 percent increase in emissions in 2014 and warns that the current trajectory could lead to the world average temperatures being about 3.2°C to 5.4°C degrees above pre-industrial times by 2100. Pollution, it seems, has no time to lose.