China is often cast as the villain of climate change — pumping out more carbon emissions than any other country and refusing to yield to outside pleas for sustainability as its economy grows.
But it’s not quite as simple as that.
Since climate change is a global problem — all emissions affect the same planet we all inhabit — another way to look at it is to examine the carbon emissions per person of a country to see where individual impacts are biggest.
From this vantage, the US and Europe dwarf China. The average US citizen is responsible for more than 10 times the carbon emissions than the average Chinese citizen. Most European Countries have average emissions five to 10 times greater than the average Chinese citizen.
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This consumer-side analysis is useful because, like climate change, the world economy is also global in nature. China might generate the most emissions overall, but so much of the economy’s production is driven by demand from outside the country — US companies buying products from Chinese manufacturers that are then sold to US consumers, for example.
Each product has its own cumulative environmental impact — from the resources and energy used to make it to the energy used to transport it, products that travel further, by necessity, have larger impacts. And no country is more responsible for the make-up of the global economy than the US.
The exorbitant US climate footprint isn’t fueled simply by supply chains starting in China. Meat consumption, homes that guzzle electricity, excessive air and car travel, and many more habits, all substantially contribute to the 18.1 tons of carbon the average US citizen is responsible for.
A consumer-side perspective more fairly shifts the blame for climate change, and it also allows more room for climate action.
Typically, climate change action is described in national and international terms, as if individuals didn’t contribute to the problem — for a difference to be made, from this perspective, huge society-wide changes have to be imposed, while small lifestyle changes are trivial to the point of uselessness.
But this lets everyone off the hook, making climate change seem almost like a natural, unstoppable force.
It’s true that society-wide changes, like shutting down all coal plants, would make a significant difference.
And it’s also true that China has to do a lot more to transition its economy to sustainability.
But individual actions, when multiplied on a large scale, can also make a significant difference.
If US citizens — and all humans, for that matter — made an effort to reduce their carbon footprint, then the global economy would gradually adapt to reflect this priority of sustainability.