Those of us who live in the United States or a European country, and who fret about the future of the global climate, have an understandable tendency to focus on what’s going on in the so called western region of the world. We might be upset with the Trump administration’s policies regarding the uses made of federal lands, or with rollbacks of legislation having to do with emissions from coal fired power plants. We of course should be concerned—dismayed at the undoing of laws and regulations that affect our well-being in the here and now, or failures to join with other nations of the world in setting goals for drawdowns of CO2 emissions in the years ahead. But if we are to be effective advocates for policies and practices of global significance we need to keep in mind our place in the global picture. There’s no better way to put this into perspective than to think about China. I recently ran across a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, entitled Climate Change, human impacts and carbon sequestration in China. China is now the world’s second largest economic entity, next to the United States. That’s impressive, but even more important is the fact that China is changing more rapidly than any other major national socioeconomic system except possibly India. These changes are inexorable, and the implications for the planetary climate are profound. China is a large and powerful entity in its own right, and it exerts immense influence on a surrounding region that embraces a substantial fraction of the world’s population. As China goes, so also will a good bit of the rest of the world.
Let’s look at this graph, lifted from the PNAS research paper I alluded to above. It reveals some important facts and projections:
The upper part of the figure is easy to follow. The blue line shows the growth of China’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). You can see that it’s shot up like mad in the past decade, and it continues to climb at a furious rate. Then look at the green line, which shows population over time. Two important things: China’s population is not increasing, and in all likelihood it will not do so in the future. But it’s already huge. At 1.37 billion people, its population is about 4.3 and 2.7 times greater than that of the United States and the European Union, respectively. The third line on the graph shows the rate of CO2 emissions. These have been increasing rapidly as China looks for the energy to propel its social and economic development. The major fuel for this is coal. In 2013 China accounted for about 27% of global CO2 emissions.
The timeline below the graph tells a powerful story. Mao Zedong, the founder of the People's Republic of China was responsible for the disastrous policies of the 'Great Leap Forward'. Between 1958 and 1962, a third of all homes in China were destroyed to produce fertilizer and the nation descended into famine and starvation. In his misplaced monomania about producing an agricultural revolution, Mao mandated vast deforestation and conversion of natural ecosystems to cropland. By the time reforms were enacted, huge damage had been done to China’s ecosystems. Then the economic growth that came with reform drove massive increases in coal burning, with accompanying pollution. To quote from the PNAS paper:
“Fast economic development can be detrimental to the environment through land-use change, consumption of resources, and pollution. For example, land conversion to agriculture in northern China resulted in a drastic decline of the groundwater table and associated water shortage. China’s application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides accounted for about 36% and 25%, respectively, of the global usage. Fast economic development, along with the lack of strong environmental regulation, has resulted in severe and widespread air, water, and soil pollution in China: a quarter of the nation’s cities are affected by acid rain; soil erosion affects 19% of its land area; about 75% of lakes are polluted; and 15–20% of the country’s species are endangered. CO2 emission reduction in China is thus not only essential for achieving the global emission-reduction target but also critical for its own environmental protection and sustainable development.”
China is making strong efforts to reverse the policies of the past and to restore ecosystems, even in the face of enormous pressures to maintain its economic gains. C emissions per unit of GDP will be reduced by 60–65% from the 2005 level; the share of nonfossil fuels in the energy mix will be increased to 20%; forest volume will increase by 31.6% relative to the 2005 level.
Consider the percentages of energy production that are renewable, as of 2015: China 25%; Germany 32%; United Kingdom, 27 %; United States, 14%. Just to keep us a bit more humble humble about all this, Denmark comes in at 69%. We in the US have a long way to go, and every reason to try to do better.
Bottom line for me is that Drawdown must be a global movement if it is to succeed. We have a lot to do at home, but we should be active in responding to actions our government and large corporations take all over the globe.