Dean Baker – The Chinese Need to Stay Poor because the United States Has Done So Much to Destroy the Planet

We have a global warming problem because the U.S. and other wealthy countries have been spewing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere for decades, but now we are trying to dictate the pace of emissions reductions for China and other developing countries.

Dean Baker is a Senior Economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR)

Cross-posted from the CEPR Blog


That line is effectively the conventional wisdom among people in policy circles. If that seems absurd, then you need to think more about how many politicians and intellectual types are approaching climate change.

Just this week, John Kerry, President Biden’s climate envoy, was in China. He was asking the Chinese government to move more quickly in reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. President Xi told Kerry that China was not going to move forward its current target, which is to start reducing emissions by 2030.

I know from Twitter that many people think that Kerry’s request was reasonable and that Xi is jeopardizing the planet with his refusal to move forward China’s schedule for emission reductions. This is in spite of the fact that China is by far the world leader in wind energy, solar energy, and electric cars and that all three are growing at double-digit annual rates.

The basic complaint is that China must start reducing its emissions now because of the crisis facing the planet. To my Twitter friends, the problem is that China is the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gas. It doesn’t matter that it has four times the population of the U.S. and emits less than half as much on a per person basis. Nor does it matter that its economy is growing rapidly as it tries to catch up to the living standards enjoyed in the United States and other wealthy countries.

This complaint against China hinges on two sorts of arguments that would be dismissed as nonsense if they were used against the United States.

  • Population size doesn’t matter. We care about how much China is emitting on the whole, not per person.
  • Levels don’t matter, we only care about rates of change.

Taking these in turn, a line I heard endlessly (maybe it came from Chatgpt) is that the climate doesn’t care about per capita emissions, it only cares about total emissions. I have no idea what people were thinking when they wrote this.

Would it be okay if Djibouti, with a population of just over 1 million had fifty times the emissions it has now, because the climate only cares about total emissions, not per capita? After all, even with fifty times its current emissions, Djibouti would only be admitting a small fraction of what the U.S. emits.

If we said this about every country with a relatively small population, we would have enormously more emissions than is now the case. I assume anyone who actually cares about the future of the planet would not say that it’s okay for small countries to have per capita emissions that are many times larger than the U.S.

Measured in per capita terms, the United States is among the worst emitters on the planet. We only have a prayer of preventing a horrible climate disaster because just about every other country emits far less per capita.

The second argument raises the question of whether historic emissions somehow entitle a country to future emissions. Just writing that sentence seems close to crazy, but that is in fact what many of my Twitter friends seem to believe.

If we only care about changes and not levels, we are effectively saying that high levels of past emissions allow us to have high levels of future emissions. This line becomes even more absurd when we consider that, in general, higher GDP has been associated with higher levels of emissions. In other words, at least historically, as countries have gotten richer, they have emitted more greenhouse gases.

In the context of China, which is no longer poor, but still a rapidly growing developing country, limiting its future emissions growth would effectively be saying that the country doesn’t have the right to reach U.S. standards of living. This sort of restriction applied to poorer countries would be even more onerous. It would mean that poor countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and South Asia should be denied the opportunity to improve the living standards of their populations because they had not had high emissions in prior years.

The story gets even worse when we consider that the only reason that the planet now faces a climate crisis is that the United States and other wealthy countries have been spewing vast amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere for decades. If we all still had 19th or 18th century living standards, global warming would not pose an imminent crisis.

Our China critics are effectively saying that China, and implicitly other developing countries, must be denied the opportunity to improve the living standards of their people because we messed up the planet so badly. That might make sense in intellectual circles here, but that is not an argument that is likely to impress people in China or anywhere outside those circles.

Fortunately for the planet, China actually is moving ahead rapidly in promoting clean energy and electric cars. It is now projected to have its emissions peak in 2025, after which they will be headed downward. This is the result of aggressive policies that it has undertaken to control its emissions, policies that are far more aggressive than anything we have put in place here.

The Chinese government apparently has far more concern for the future of the planet than its critics in the United States. If we did want an opportunity to put our money where our mouth is, the United States could adopt a policy of making all the technology that it develops fully open-source, so that everyone in the world could take advantage of it, without concerns about patent monopolies or other protections.

That would help to speed the process of diffusion so that clean technologies could be adopted more quickly around the world. But doing this could actually mean money out of the pocket of intellectual-types here. For that reason, don’t expect to see any discussion of open-sourcing clean technologies in any reputable publication here. Hurting poor people in the developing world might be a fair topic for debate, not taking away money from relatively affluent people here.

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