Or so Shai Oster of the Wall Street Journal writes today, citing comments by the International Energy Agency’s chief economist, Fatih Birol. Previously China had been expected to surpass the U.S. in emissions in 2010, but China’s burgeoning economy (increasing at more than 10% a year for the past four years) has required a revision to the estimate — China will likely surpass the U.S. in emissions this year.
This, of course, is touched on by Mr. Gore in An Inconvenient Truth, but he doesn’t dwell on the looming Chinese and Indian industrial complexes. For good reason — once those two countries’ billion-each populations take to the roads and demand production/consumer goods en masse, the U.S. contribution to the global warming problem will, relatively, appear a pittance. For now, though, our place is secure as the #1 or #2 polluter for years to come–and the U.S. historically has aspired to lead in several issues of critical importance to humankind. The moral need for self-correction can never be mitigated by the fact that one’s neighbor or friend is the worse offender.
But consider this: the current U.S. population is approximately 300 million. Approximately 50% of Americans own cars. That’s 150 million American cars on the road and about 1.5 billion tons of CO2 annually.
The Chinese population is approximately 1.3 billion. As of 2000, fewer than 1 % of all Chinese own cars. (It’s approximately 1 in 125 overall, close to 1 in 6 in the larger cities.) That’s currently about 10 million cars.
Overall, automobiles contribute approximately 25% of overall carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. (Vehicles also contribute approximately 60%-70% of urban air pollution.) At 1.5 billion tons of CO2 annually, cars are second only to coal-burning power plants, which in the U.S. emit 2.5 billion tons of CO2 annually.
What happens, then, when the Chinese population takes up car ownership en masse, as the populace is buoyed financially by the returns from recent gains in market share of such Chinese-made brands (unattractively named as they might be) as Roewe, Geely, and Chery, which even now are finding their way into the U.S. auto market? China last year became the second-largest car market in the world–so the accelerating Chinese takeup of personally owned vehicles has already begun.
Assuming arguendo emission standards as stringent as those in the U.S., imagine a China with 50% car ownership: that’s 650 million automobiles, and, by extrapolation, 6 billion tons of CO2 annually.
This ignores entirely the recent growth of the Indian market: the Indian population is approximately 1 billion. Car ownership is very low — I’d guess, from anecdotal evidence, close to Chinese levels. Likely an increase in incomes and affordable cars would result in a similar monumental increase in emissions.
This also ignores the larger problem of even-more-polluting coal-fired power plants. What, too, to make of concerns about the continuned availability of resources as 600 million (plus another 600 million for India?) automobiles are assembled from raw resources and placed on the roads?
I offer no answers, and there is no easy answer. Certainly self-policing and regulation is and has long been the U.S. solution when faced with similar problems. At least with regard to these two growing superpowers, how, then, to stem the tide and encourage other nations to engage in self-policing of their own before they can afford to ignore a U.S. lead in these matters?