Kate Mackenzie Colonialism, ethics and China’s emissions growth

Is it unethical to blame China for its carbon emissions when a large part is emitted in the name of producing goods for western markts? Or is it twisted logic to overlook the side effects a country’s deliberately export-led economic strategy?

After being criticised for some time now for its export-focused, savings-heavy economic policies, not to mention its policy on the renminbi, a report this week argued that China was being unfairly blamed for its carbon emissions, when much of those emissions are created by its production of consumer goods for western countries.

To recap the popular Guardian story, a Norwegian study to be published in a scientific journal “shows that half of the recent rise in China‘s carbon dioxide pollution is caused by the manufacturing of goods for other countries – particularly developed nations such as the UK.”

The research, due to be published in the scientific journal Geophysical Research Letters, underlines “offshored emissions” as a key unresolved issue in the run up to this year’s crucial Copenhagen summit, at which world leaders will attempt to thrash out a deal to replace the Kyoto protocol.

Developing countries are under pressure to commit to binding emissions cuts in Copenhagen. But China is resistant, partly because it does not accept responsibility for the emissions involved in producing goods for foreign markets.

It raises the question of whether it is fair to count emissions where they are produced, rather than consumed. Oxford environmental economist Dieter Helm tells the Guardian that focusing on consumption is the “only ethically sound approach”.

However Charlie McElwee, a Shanghai-based lawyer, says this should not be seen as some kind of neo-colonialist injustice for China:

When you have structured an economy on an export model, it seems rather axiomatic that you are going to be making stuff in your country that people in other countries will be consuming.  In this scenario, who bears the “blame” for this fact?

This is not the 19th century and the commodity at issue is not opium.  China is not a victim now.  It has chosen a development model that encourages manufacture for export

However China’s exports are falling as those recession-hit Westerners lose their appetite for consuming. They were down by 17.5% in January to their lowest levels in a decade. Perhaps the argument over emissions responsibility will be seen in a different light by the time the big UN climate change meeting in Copenhagen rolls around this December.