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As emissions rise, China loses moral high ground

For years, China has dismissed concerns about its rising carbon emissions by pointing out that, per capita, Chinese citizens still emit far less than their counterparts in the industrialized world. But now that China’s per capita emissions are on par with those of the European Union, that argument will be much harder to make.

This dynamic is beautifully illustrated in the above graph, which was included in an analysis of 2011 emissions released Wednesday by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) and the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. The data comes from the Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR) and covers carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels as well as cement production.

Overall, the trend remains troublingly stable, with 3% growth in 2011, down from an eye-popping 5.8% increase in 2010 (Trend Watch). At roughly 34 billion tonnes, the global total is slightly higher than an earlier estimate produced by the International Energy Agency (partly explained by the fact that the PBL/JRC report also includes emissions from international transport). The EDGAR database also lines up with the higher estimates by researchers who questioned China’s national carbon dioxide emissions inventory in a study published by Nature Climate Change in May.

China’s per capita emissions remain well below those of the United States, despite the fact that the United States has registered the largest drop of all. This discrepancy could provide Chinese negotiators continued political leverage as the two super-emitters face off in the international climate negotiations, but the pressure on China will only increase as it overtakes Europe, probably this year.

Graphic Source: PBL/JRC

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