In a war on emissions, which side would you be on – China or the USA? Jes Rutter, Managing Director, JRP Solutions

Statistics released from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in early Feb have revealed that a fall in coal use and a subsequent rise in renewables and nuclear electricity sources was a prime driver in the UK registering a 4% decline in carbon emissions in 2015.

Posted on 14 February 2017.

Whilst the reduction in emissions is obviously good news for the UK, we account for only slightly more than 1% of worldwide emissions and are therefore a tiny player in the global challenge of climate change.  To put that into context, China and the US together account for about 45% of global emissions.

We need our super powers to achieve their targets if we are to begin to have any hope of getting climate change under control. 

Whether fairly or not, China, far more than the USA, has long been seen as the bad boy of environmental issues, and its poor record on air pollution is legendary.  In December 2016 alone, more than 70 Chinese cities released warnings to citizens about pollution reaching dangerous levels.  Factories, power plants and schools were ordered to close, planes were grounded and driving restrictions put in place.

But China has a plan!

China has already been working for a number of years to reduce its CO2 emissions, improve energy efficiency, expand renewable energy and develop low carbon cities. The super power is on track to meet or even exceed its Copenhagen climate pledge, which was to reduce its carbon intensity by 40-45% below 2005 levels by 2020. China is responsible for over half of the world's energy conservation efforts over the past two decades and has also installed 40 percent of the world's newly added renewable energy power over the past five years.  The country's investment in clean and renewable energy exceeded the combined total invested by the U.S. and Europe.

It was big news last autumn and seen as a major step forward in global cooperation when China announced its ratification of the Paris climate change agreement.  China has pledged to peak its CO2 emissions by 2030 and to make best efforts to peak earlier. It will increase non-fossil energy to 20% of its energy consumption by 2030, which will require it to install 800 to 1,000 gigawatts in non-fossil capacity, equivalent to the entire current US generating capacity. China has shown leadership in putting a price on carbon by committing to build a national cap and trade system, which will launch in 2017 and become the world's largest. It has also pledged 20 million RMB ($3.1 billion USD) to the South-South Climate Cooperation Fund to help developing countries address climate change.

We don’t hear so much about it, but air pollution is also a considerable problem in the USA.  According to the American Lung Association’s ‘state of the air’ report 2016, 166 million Americans are living in unhealthy ozone or particle pollution with serious health risks.  The report found that there has been a gradual improvement in air quality in recent years but warned that progress has been too slow and could even be reversed by efforts in Congress to water down the Clean Air Act. 

So what is the USA’s plan?

Well, everything you could expect of a climate change denier who says it’s all a hoax invented by the Chinese.

During his election campaign, Trump promised to undo Obama’s climate action plan and defund UN climate change work.  A former climate change adviser to Donald Trump has confirmed that the US President will pull America out of the Paris agreement and that he is determined to undo policies pushed by Barack Obama to restrict greenhouse gas emissions.  There are also reports of drastic funding and staffing cuts at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Okay, it’s certainly not a black and white picture.   We don’t yet know what Trump will actually do and there were reports from China just last month of provinces being asked to turn off smog warnings, generating fears that the government is trying to deceive the population about levels air pollution. 

But, to paraphrase Rodgers and Hammerstein, if you don’t have a dream, how can you have a dream come true?  At least China has a dream, whereas if Trump delivers on his election promises, the USA could be an environmentalist’s nightmare!

Which side are you on?