Why developing nations should not get a CO2 emissions break

In the worldwide struggle to cut the use of fossil fuels to power our cars and heat our homes, China and India along with a couple other “developing” countries are often seen by the west (including Canada) as a major obstacle to any serious attempt to cut back emissions.

That’s because as “developing” nations they feel they deserve a break while they catch up to the already “developed” west (which for these purposes includes Japan). That leaves countries like the U.S. and Canada in what they consider an even worse competitive position vis a vis the emerging Asian countries. Not only will a partial solution give countries like China, India and Brazil a competitive advantage, but the impact of such an agreement would be greatly watered down because major emitters would not be included.

More importantly, for countries like Canada there is a built-in excuse not to try too hard to follow what may be viewed as unfair targets like those set out in the Kyoto accord. For Canada the competitive disadvantage far outweighs the impact that Canadian cutbacks would have on the global environment. That’s the case even if Canada were to meet the Kyoto targets.

In fact, even if all of the Alberta oil sands projects were shut down completely that would result in a reduction of only 0.1% of global CO2 emissions, and have a negligible impact on global warming – even if you accept the most pessimistic assumptions about the damage done by greenhouse gases.

Of course those are only emissions due to extraction of oil sands oil. Another common assumption is that oil sands oil is much “dirtier” than oil from other sources. But as Ezra Levant points out in his book Ethical Oil it depends what other sources we are talking about. Most new sources of oil (the ones that would be required to replace oil sands oil) are just as bad as the oil sands, and often worse. And in any event technological improvements are narrowing the “dirty” gap between oil sands oil and conventional oil.

China and India as branch plants for the west

China and India are often lumped together as major polluters. We all know that China’s economy is expanding so quickly, and there are so many people living there, that virtually any emission improvements made elsewhere are essentially canceled out by increases in China. In spite of significant investments made in renewable energy sources like solar and wind, the Chinese government is still adding new coal fired power generating plants every week.

As Brian Palmer points out in China vs. India: Who’s the Greener Emerging Power? China emits more than three times the CO2 that India does. That is because of China’s incredibly massive manufacturing base. As Palmer also points out,

It also bears mentioning that China produces one-third of its CO2 emissions (PDF) manufacturing goods for export. Forty percent of the consumer goods purchased in the United States are made in China, representing more than 18 percent of China’s total exports. So blaming China for climate change is a bit like blaming your chauffeur for using so much gas.

This gives us another reason for thinking major exporting countries like China, India and Brazil should not be excluded from emission target agreements: to a large degree they are operating as branch plants for consumers in the west. Americans, Canadians and Europeans are simply exporting their energy-intensive manufacturing operations to other countries, and in the process, offloading the emissions that go with them.