For thousands of years, we made things with our hands. But in the mid-1700s, people in Britain began to make things with machines that ran on fuels which, when burned, released an invisible gas called carbon dioxide — not much at first, but that would change.
In many ways, making things with machines was better than making things by hand. Other people, first in Europe and then in the United States and elsewhere, rushed to invent new machines that emitted carbon dioxide and other gases that trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere.
In the second half of the 20th century, China finally began its own era of industrialization. The pace has been astonishing, far surpassing the speed of the west’s industrial development. At this rate, it’s not a matter of whether China will eventually emit more carbon dioxide than any other country in history, but when.
Take a guessChina is projected to pass the U.S. as history’s biggest CO2 emitter in…
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Chart is showing cumulative CO2 emissions through 1750
Despite the West’s enormous head start, China is projected to have emitted more total carbon dioxide than all of Europe by 2039 and more than the United States by 2050.
What’s at stake
Carbon dioxide has costs.
Those costs are borne by the poor.
The countries least responsible for causing climate change are also the least prepared to adapt
to it. They need money to ready their cities for floods
and their crops for drought
. Plus, they still need to build up their own energy infrastructure, a difficult and expensive proposition even without having to worry about limiting emissions.
China has avoided paying.
China’s relatively late start on the road to development — and its classification as a developing country by the United Nations — have allowed it to dodge calls to join the world’s wealthy countries in helping bear the costs of climate change.
In international climate negotiations, much depends on the U.N.’s idiosyncratic classification scheme, which cleaves the world’s countries into two verb suffixes: -ed and -ing. That is, developed and developing. Richer countries are -eds; poorer countries are –ings. (The U.N. officially refers to these groups as Annex I and Non-Annex I.)
When the scheme was created in 1992, China was clearly an –ing. Back then, about 65 percent of China’s population lived on less than $2.15 per day. By 2017, the share had fallen to 0.1 percent — note the decimal point before the one. In those 25 years, something like 900 million Chinese people emerged from poverty.
Meanwhile, China has led the world in annual carbon dioxide emissions since 2006. Although China’s population is enormous, its annual per capita emissions have surpassed Europe’s every year since 2013 and are projected to continue doing so for decades to come.
Despite leading the world in renewable energy generation, China’s energy appetite is so voracious that it still gets almost 90 percent of its energy from coal, natural gas and oil — fossil fuels that contribute to global warming. In 2021, China was responsible for more than half of the world’s development of new coal power — the fuel source that emits the most carbon dioxide per unit of electricity generated — according to a report by nonprofit Global Energy Monitor.
In short, China’s breakneck economic growth may be incompatible with limiting emissions, a fact that worries American diplomats.
“I think there’s a serious question as to whether they are prepared to do some things that they need to reduce emissions rather than just full steam ahead in their economy,” John F. Kerry, the Biden administration’s special climate envoy, told Post reporters in January. “There’s no room anymore for this argument that historic emissions have to balance out.”
Whether China limits its emissions is one question. Whether it pays for them is another.
Accounting for carbon’s costs is tricky. Extreme weather is not new, and it has become costlier in part because there are now more people, buildings and infrastructure in harm’s way. Still, the best available science suggests today’s extremes surpass what natural climate variability alone would be expected to produce.
Last year’s flooding in Pakistan, for instance, caused an estimated $30 billion in economic losses — a toll that would have been smaller had it been 1962, when Pakistan’s population was 48 million, instead of 2022, when it was 242 million. Yet rain in the flooded region has grown more intense because of global warming, according to World Weather Attribution, a global collaboration of scientists. Climate change likely made a bad situation worse.
Recognizing this, rich countries last year committed to pay reparations to Pakistan and other countries harmed by climate change. China declined to join them — for all its progress, it does not see itself as an –ed yet.
“China is neither a developed country nor a developing country. We are just this special species when it comes to the global stage,” Li Shuo, a senior policy adviser at Greenpeace East Asia, told me. “This has been our identity crisis.”
Reality often defies classification, so it comes as no surprise that the –ed/-ing binary fails to capture the full spectrum of national development. Along that spectrum, two things are clear: richer countries emit more carbon dioxide, and China is starting to look more like a rich country than a poor one.
|CO2 per capita
|GDP per capita
Hover on the chart to explore the data.
Note: Data as of 2021. Chart uses a logarithmic scale.
Reclassifying China as an –ed would need the unanimous agreement of nearly 200 nations, a virtual impossibility. Even so, Beijing has started to act more like –ed nations over the years.
In 2009, at a U.N. conference in Copenhagen, the –eds agreed to transfer $100 billion a year to poor countries encumbered by climate change (they have fallen short of that commitment). Back then, it was a big deal when China declared it would not compete with other –ings for a share of the money. In 2015, China went further, pledging $3.1 billion in climate-related aid, though not within the U.N. funding framework.
Outside the world of climate diplomacy, some argue foreign aid would be better spent fighting malnutrition, improving education, and otherwise helping –ings become –eds. A wealthier Pakistan, the argument goes, will better weather future floods. When extreme weather strikes, it will be safer to live in an –ed than an –ing, no matter how the U.N. classifies it.
Check my work
The EIA does not release separate projections for European countries, so I had to combine them. Moreover, the EIA includes Israel with Europe, which, a spokesperson told me, is “for statistical reporting purposes.” Your guess is as good as mine.
You can use the code and data to produce your own analyses and charts — and to make sure mine are accurate. If you do, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I might share your work in my next column.