The US and China are pointing fingers at each other over climate change

The US and China are pointing fingers at each other over climate change thumbnail

The UN climate conference just wrapped up over the weekend after a marathon negotiating session that stretched talks nearly 48 hours past their scheduled conclusion. (A question for my editor) If the UN isn’t meeting its deadlines, do I still need to? )

The most notable outcome of the conference was the establishment of a fund that will help poor countries to pay for climate damage. This piece is being hailed a victory. However, some leaders are worried that there wasn’t enough progress during this year’s talks.

And everyone is pointing fingers, blaming others for not taking action fast enough on climate funding. Activists call the US the ‘colossal ,’, and US leaders complain about being called when China is the leading emitter. Let’s look at some data and see how climate scientists and analysts view climate responsibility.

Why it matters

As I wrote about a couple of weeks ago in the newsletter, one of the major discussions at COP27 was about whether richer countries should help poorer, more vulnerable nations pay for the impacts of climate change. Climate disasters were top of mind this year, especially after devastating flooding in Pakistan killed over 1,000 people, displaced millions more. Total cost estimates topped $40 billion.

After two weeks of negotiations, delegates at COP27 reached an agreement on financing for loss and damage….sort of. It will exist, but it is not clear how and how much it will cost. Details are set to be ironed out at, you guessed it, another UN climate conference–COP28 is scheduled for next year in Dubai.

Countries that contribute to the loss and damage fund don’t accept responsibility for climate-related damages. The creation of the fund and all the discussions about climate damage have raised the question: Who is to blame? Who should pay for it?

Not-so-ancient history

When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, history matters. Here’s what I mean by that:

  • Some greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, have long lifetimes: they’re not very reactive, so they hang around for a long time after they’re emitted.
  • Warming is a function of the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
  • So, when we’re talking about climate responsibility, we should consider total emissions through history.

When I was first learning about climate science, this logic floored me. This logic is so intuitive that it recasts the debate about national climate responsibility in my mind. I had always believed that China was the country to be concerned about when it comes to emissions. They are the largest climate polluter in the world today.

But when you add up all the emissions, it becomes clear that the US is the largest total emitter. They account for around 25% of all global emissions. The EU is next, with about 17% of the total. China is third.

So the US and EU together account for 40% of total emissions–that’s a huge chunk of what’s driving climate change today. This is important because fossil fuels have been a major source of energy for centuries. The US and EU are now at a large portion of climate change’s current pace. These emissions are now causing massive environmental disasters all over the globe.

“A quarter of the CO2 in our atmosphere is red, white and blue.”

Senator Ed Markey

Catching up

China’s emissions have shot up over the past couple decades–so you might be wondering, when will they catch up and take the top spot? Robbie Andrew, a senior researcher at The Center for International Climate Research in Norway, and climate data expert, asked me this question.

“Just using some simplified scenarios, I think it could be another 30 years before China overtakes the US on cumulative emissions,” Andrew told me in an email. “The US has a strong head start here .”

Simon Evans of CarbonBrief put it another way on Twitter: if emissions are constant, the US will still have a solid lead in total emissions in 2030. In fact, the US could emit nothing between now and 2030 and still be ahead of China.

Simon Evans, Twitter

A final datapoint to consider: by per capita emissions, the US again takes first place in the world by far. Check out that per capita data and some other great charts in my story from last week.

Now, I’m not saying that everyone else gets off the hook because the US leads the world on a few climate metrics. It’s important to consider both the historical context and the current state of affairs when we start talking about climate change and how we can address the impacts we are seeing.

It’s unfair that some countries have emitted more than others and will continue to do so. However, others are being the most affected by climate change. The world must reduce its emissions to zero as quickly as possible and as fairly as possible. We still have a lot of work to do.

Keeping up with Climate

Lab-grown meat just reached a huge milestone in the US: an FDA no-questions letter. Upside Foods may be able to start selling its cultured meat next year after clearing a few regulatory hurdles. (Wired)

– This isn’t the first commercially-available cultured meat product, though. That honor goes to startup Just, which launched lab-grown chicken nuggets in Singapore in 2020. (MIT Technology Review)

Lab-grown meat arguably still isn’t a given: it’s likely going to be expensive, and winning over doubters could be difficult. (MIT Technology Review)

– My colleague Niall Firth dug deep into the race to make a lab-grown steak in 2019. (MIT Technology Review)

Biofuels may seem intuitively good for the environment, but a total agriculture revamp might be required to keep the promise. (Nature)

The UN is calling for protection of a nuclear power plant in Ukraine. Since September, the reactors at Zaporizhzhia have been shut down. This reduces, but not eliminates, the risk of an accident. (New York Times)

Energy Vault promised a new way of storing energy with rock elevators. Now, it’s selling lots of batteries. (Canary Media)

Qatar says the World Cup is carbon neutral. The carbon offsets it relies on are at best sketchy. (Bloomberg)

– The problem of low-quality offsets isn’t a new one. Read my colleague James Temple’s investigation into offsets in California, which was included in this year’s Best American Science and Nature Writing compilation. (MIT Technology Review with Propublica)

Three Midwestern states are leading the charge on equitable access to EV charging, with the help of new federal funding. (Inside Climate News)

India isn’t a monolith. India’s emissions will be reduced by acknowledging differences in income and infrastructure. (Science)

– India plans to reach net zero emissions by 2070. Here are the reasons that this plan makes sense . (MIT Technology Review)

Just for Fun

Advanced x-rays can be used to spot defects in batteries. They are also very fascinating to look at.

I recently came across this site called Scan of the Month, which drops a new set of CT scans monthly. And it just so happens that October’s edition was batteries. They also looked inside Duracell alkaline batteries and two different types of lithium-ion cells.

They’ve also scanned a golf club, AirPods, and Lego minifigures. You can check out the site without removing any personal electronics.

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