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Climate change and energy

The US and China are pointing fingers at each other over climate change

The UN climate talks ended in a lackluster deal, and concerns about slow climate action are prompting a blame game.

November 24, 2022
John Kerry at podium of COP27 gestures back toward a smiling Xie Zhenhua.
AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty

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The UN climate conference just wrapped up over the weekend after a marathon negotiating session that stretched talks nearly 48 hours past their scheduled conclusion. (A question for my editor: the UN isn’t hitting deadlines, so do I still have to?)

The most notable outcome from the conference was establishment of a fund to help poor countries pay for climate damages. That is being hailed as a win. But beyond that victory, some leaders are concerned there wasn’t enough progress. 

And everyone is pointing fingers at others for not taking action fast enough on climate funding. Activists are calling the US the “colossal fossil,” and US leaders are complaining about being blamed while China is the current leading emitter. So let’s dig into some data and consider how researchers and climate analysts think about climate responsibility. 

Why it matters

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago in the newsletter, one of the major discussions at COP27 was about whether richer countries should help poorer, more vulnerable nations pay for the impacts of climate change. Climate disasters were top of mind this year, especially after devastating flooding in Pakistan killed over 1,000 people and displaced millions more. Total cost estimates topped $40 billion. 

After two weeks of negotiations, delegates at COP27 reached an agreement on financing for loss and damage ... sort of. There will be a fund, but it is still not clear how much will be in it and how it will work. Details are set to be ironed out at, you guessed it, another UN climate conference—COP28 is scheduled for next year in Dubai. 

Countries paying into the loss and damages fund aren’t admitting blame or accepting liability for climate damages. But the creation of the fund and all the discussions around climate damage have brought up some questions: Who got us into this mess? And who should be paying for it?

Not-so-ancient history

When it comes to greenhouse-gas emissions, history matters. Here’s what I mean by that:

  • Some greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, have long lifetimes: they’re not very reactive, so they hang around for a long time after they’re emitted. 
  • Warming is a function of the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
  • So when we’re talking about climate responsibility, we should consider total emissions through history. 

When I was first learning about climate science, this logic floored me. It’s so intuitive, but it recast the debate around national climate responsibility in my head. I’d always heard that China was the country we should all be talking about when it came to emissions. They’re the biggest climate polluter today, after all. 

But when you add up total emissions, it’s super clear: the US is by far the greatest total emitter, responsible for about a quarter of all emissions ever. The EU is next, with about 17% of the total. Finally we have China, coming in third. 

So the US and EU together account for 40% of total emissions—that’s a huge chunk of what’s driving climate change today. This matters because energy from fossil fuels helped drive economic growth for centuries, so the US and EU owe their economic status today in large part to all those fossil fuels. And now, those emissions are supercharging disasters around the world. 

“A quarter of the CO2 in our atmosphere is red, white, and blue.”

Senator Ed Markey

Catching up

China’s emissions have shot up over the past couple of decades—so you might be wondering, when will they catch up and take the top spot? I asked this question to Robbie Andrew, a senior researcher at the Center for International Climate Research in Norway and a climate data expert. 

“Just using some simplified scenarios, I think it could be another 30 years before China overtakes the US on cumulative emissions,” Andrew told me in an email. “The US has a good head start here.”

Simon Evans of CarbonBrief put it another way on Twitter: if emissions are constant, the US will still have a solid lead in total emissions in 2030. In fact, the US could emit nothing between now and 2030 and still be ahead of China. 

Simon Evans, Twitter

A final data point to consider: in terms of per capita emissions, the US again takes first place in the world by far. Check out that per capita data and some other great charts in my story from last week. 

Now, I’m not saying that everyone else gets off the hook because the US leads the world on a few climate metrics. But I think it’s important that we consider the full context, both history and the current state of things, as we get into conversations about how we can curb climate change and how we can deal with the impacts we’re seeing today. 

It’s not fair that some countries have emitted far more than others, and will continue to do so, while others are the ones getting hit the hardest by climate change. But ultimately, the world needs to cut emissions to zero as quickly and equitably as possible, and we’ve got a long way to go. 

Keeping up with climate

Lab-grown meat just reached a huge milestone in the US: an FDA no-questions letter. After clearing a couple more regulatory hurdles, Upside Foods could begin selling its cultured meat as early as next year. (Wired)

→ This isn’t the first commercially available cultured meat product, though. That honor goes to startup Just, which launched lab-grown chicken nuggets in Singapore in 2020. (MIT Technology Review)

Lab-grown meat arguably still isn’t a given: it’s likely going to be expensive, and winning over doubters could be difficult. (MIT Technology Review)

→ My colleague Niall Firth dug deep into the race to make a lab-grown steak in 2019. (MIT Technology Review)

Biofuels might intuitively seem good for the climate, but a total farming revamp might be necessary to keep the promise alive. (Nature)

The UN is calling for protection of a nuclear power plant in Ukraine. The reactors at the Zaporizhzhia plant have been shut down since September, which reduces but doesn’t totally eliminate the risk of an accident. (New York Times)

Energy Vault promised a new way of storing energy with rock elevators. But now, it’s selling a lot of batteries. (Canary Media)

Qatar says the World Cup is carbon neutral. But the carbon offsets its relying on are sketchy, at best. (Bloomberg)

→ The problem of low-quality offsets isn’t a new one. Read my colleague James Temple’s investigation into offsets in California, which was included in this year’s Best American Science and Nature Writing compilation. (MIT Technology Review with ProPublica)

Three Midwestern states are leading the charge on equitable access to EV charging, with the help of new federal funding. (Inside Climate News)

India isn’t a monolith. Acknowledging differences in income and infrastructure across the country in climate policies will be key to cutting India’s emissions. (Science)

→ India plans to reach net zero emissions by 2070. Here’s why that plan makes sense. (MIT Technology Review)

Just for fun

Advanced x-rays can be used to spot defects in batteries. They’re also fascinating to look at. 

I recently came across this site called Scan of the Month, which drops a new set of CT scans monthly. And it just so happens that October’s edition was batteries. They took a look inside a Duracell alkaline battery, as well as two different formats of lithium-ion cells.

They’ve also scanned a golf club, AirPods, and Lego minifigures. Check out the site to satisfy your curiosity without pulling apart any of your personal electronics. 

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