Why Britons Cannot Save the Environment Alone

Tom Miles

I read in The Times this week that China had overtaken the European Union in terms of greenhouse gas emissions per person and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking that this news is no surprise. Indeed, when one thinks of 21st century China, the idyllic image of pagodas, pandas and rice paddies is at the forefront of very few people’s minds. No, only one ‘P’ can complete that unforgivable display of alliteration: pollution.

Often, environmentalists rain down statistics in an attempt to guilt-trip us into switching our TVs off standby and not leaving the kitchen light on all night, so it is a welcome surprise that they have shifted the blame of modern climate change to where it really belongs. And it’s not the UK. Or, at least, not entirely. Figures show that in 2012, Britain produced about 7.5 tonnes of CO2 per capita, up slightly on China’s seven tonnes. You think that still makes us a worse culprit than our industrialising Far Eastern friends? I’d disagree, simply because of the huge difference in population if nothing else. Around 63 million people reside in the British Isles, which contrasts ever so slightly with the 1.35 billion in China. Then that half a tonne of CO2 difference begins looking a little insignficant. Join this with the fact that China’s rate of emissions is growing, while those of Europe are falling, and perhaps we can start to think that doing our wash on a higher temperature might not be so bad after all.

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With that in mind, don’t think I’m condoning irresponsible energy use. I consider myself “big” on the environment. I mean, where would we be without it? More economically developed countries, ‘first world nations’ if you like, have a huge obligation to improve the situation before the world gets itself into a sticky situation that it can’t get out of – the “tipping point” of emissions from which we will be unable to return. The USA is key in this. In 2006, it was producing just under six billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide (although, even then, that was below China’s figure), and to this date it remains adrift from the Kyoto Protocol, a United Nations treaty that sets binding targets to nations to reduce their pollution output. To the eyes of the world, the United States seem to be aware that they’re doing damage and simply don’t care.

This, at least, is where China has the upper hand. They have an excuse. During the Industrial Revolution, they could say, Britain had their time in the sun. They manufactured, they prospered, they polluted. And, certainly, we did, but with a population of approximately 25 million at the time and a land mass dwarfed by that of China, how much damage could we really do to the planet as a whole? The US, though, can’t weasel out of this one quite so easily. They might not have the population of China (at 317 million, the USA is surprisingly sparesely populated), but they’re a competitor for size and their lifestyles incite far more disapproval and head-shaking than the average Chinese working man. While an American might use water to fill his pool or water his lawn, that resource will be put to keeping thirsty subsistence crops in the East alive, and the energy used to warm a 5-bedroom condo would be used in the depths of rural China to… well, it wouldn’t be used at all. If they wish to be kept warm this November, they’d better fetch some more logs for the fire.

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Why then, do I insist that it is China we should shame as being responsible for plunging us all into this blackhole that geographers, conservationists and environmentalists fear so much? Put as basically as possible, it’s just because it really is their fault. If we look at the absolute values of emissions, China is the biggest polluter. Yes, it sure is a big place with an astronomical population size, but I cannot comprehend why that is an excuse; all it does is confirm that they’re really the ones with the problem to fix.

Europe, Britan, the USA, all of us are passengers on a train that is hurtling down a hill out of control. I’m completely aware that if we jumped off the train it’d slow down. But until China, sat up there in the cab, puts the brakes on, all we can do is yell at them pathetically and wag our fingers. All the while, it continues to race down and down until one day, and that day isn’t as distant as we might hope, it’ll be going just that little bit too fast. And then, well, The Times really will have something to write about.

About Tom Miles

Maths student in Sheffield with interests including the environment, trains and medical dramas. Described by some as "safe" despite once taking a drag of a cigarette. @lordtom_