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The climate freeloaders: emerging nations need to act

By Fred Pearce - posted Friday, 27 March 2009

Now that George W. Bush is not around to misinterpret, it is probably safe to point out something climate negotiators rarely mention. There are quite a few countries out there that don’t have targets to cut their carbon dioxide emissions, but who really ought to. They are not poor, and they are not low emitters. They are climate freeloaders.

I am not talking about large Asian countries like India or Indonesia or even China, where national emissions may be large but per capita emissions remain very low by rich-world standards. The average Indian is responsible for roughly a tenth the emissions of the average American. Even the average Chinese has emissions only around a quarter those of the average American, and a good proportion of that is produced while making goods to sell to the West.

We, the big emitters, have to engage countries like China and India in taking action, if we are to stave off climate change. But we have to do that from a position of humility - admitting that, sorry, but we have used up most of the available atmospheric space for greenhouse gases.


What I am talking about here, however, is a growing list of rapidly industrialising countries that don’t have targets under the existing Kyoto Protocol, but have emissions rates that are now often above those of many longtime industrialised nations that do have targets. Moreover, while the Kyoto countries are cutting emissions, the non-Kyoto countries are mostly raising them - and fast.

These are places as different as Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and South Korea. None of these countries currently seem likely even to be asked to adopt targets in Copenhagen later this year, when the successor agreement to the 1997 protocol is set to be decided. And that seems increasingly crazy - not only unfair, but also damaging to any real effort to tackle climate change.

When the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997, it set targets for industrialised countries, including member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the former Soviet bloc and Japan. But emerging industrial countries were left out, partly through political expediency and partly because their emissions didn’t seem to matter much. Now they do.

The trend is revealed in disturbing detail in estimates of national emissions for 2007 recently published by the US government’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, a widely respected international monitor.

Take Malaysia, which for all intents and purposes is now an industrialised country and has carbon dioxide emissions that reflect that - emissions produced from the energy used to run factories, vehicles, and air-conditioning systems. By 2007 Malaysia had increased its total emissions fourfold since 1990, from 15 million tons of carbon to 68 million tons. (1990 is the base year used for calculating emissions reductions for countries under the Kyoto Protocol.)

Malaysia - which has a GDP greater than many European countries - now emits slightly more carbon dioxide per capita than Britain, which at 2.47 tons per head is a fairly middle-range European country. But while Britain is on course to meet its Kyoto target of a cut of 12.5 per cent from 1990 levels, Malaysia can carry on raising its emissions as much as it likes.


US per capita emissions, incidentally, are currently 5.3 tons of carbon, according to Oak Ridge. At the other extreme, those of Bangladesh are 0.08 tons.

A host of other Asian countries that we used to call “tiger economies” are in the same situation as Malaysia, and for similar reasons - they continue to increase their emissions above the levels of Kyoto countries that are trying hard to reduce theirs.

Taiwan’s emissions have doubled since 1990. Its per capita emissions are ahead of most of Europe. But it has no targets.

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First published in Yale Environment 360 on January 29, 2009.

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About the Author

Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the UK. He is environment consultant for New Scientist magazine and author of the recent books When The Rivers Run Dry and With Speed and Violence. His latest book is Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff (Beacon Press, 2008). Pearce has also written for Yale e360 on world population trends and green innovation in China.

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