Between 2007 and 2012 the overall CO2 footprint of Chinese households increased by 19 per cent. 75 per cent of this gain can be attributed to increased levels of consumption by the middle classes and the wealthy. The top income groups have now reached the level of the average European, while two thirds of the population remain on the very lowest level. As a result of the changing Chinese lifestyles, there is now a need for political interventions, in order to manage the impact on climate change. A recent publication in Nature Climate Change explores these developments.
Viewed on a global scale, the wealthiest ten per cent of the world’s population already contribute between 40 and 51 per cent to the global CO2 emissions due to their level of consumption. China in particular, but also other expanding national economies, are increasingly adopting lifestyles that are intensive in terms of carbon dioxide and natural resources, similar to those common in the wealthy countries around the globe. The average EU27 household currently has a footprint of 6.7 tCO2/cap, the US-American household is at 10.4 tCO2/cap. In India this average figure is 0.9 tCO2/cap, while the footprint in Brazil is 1.5 tCO2/cap.
“The issue here is that the traditional consideration of country averages, such as the current 1.7 tCO2/cap for China, obscures significant social inequalities”, the author of the study, Dominik Wiedenhofer (Department of Social Ecology at Klagenfurt University) explains. Together with an international team of researchers he has recently published the newest results.
The poorer population in rural areas and in Chinese cities account for around two thirds of the 1.3 billion Chinese and produce approximately 0.9 tCO2/cap in CO2 emissions. The urban population belonging to the middle and upper classes, some 360 million individuals, has already reached 2 – 6.4 tCO2/cap. “Overcoming poverty must be one of society’s critical aims. In this respect, significant progress has been made in China over the past 30 years. The globalisation of the lifestyles of the wealthy in China, which are heavily oriented towards the West, represents a huge challenge in terms of averting perilous levels of climate change”, Dominik Wiedenhofer expands.
He further concludes: “The hypothetical catching-up of Chinese households to the level of the urban rich or, respectively, the average Europeans, would lead to the threefold increase of the total Chinese CO2 footprint of Chinese households involving 1.3 billion people. It is therefore becoming all the more urgent to uncouple the quality of life from consumption and from the associated carbon dioxide emissions. Some countries have already successfully demonstrated that it is possible to achieve a high standard of living with a merely average level of consumption and around 1 tCO2/cap. An environmentally friendly future therefore inevitably raises the social question of a sustainable life for all.”
Wiedenhofer, D., Guan, D., Liu, Z., Meng, J., Zhang, N. & Wie, Y.-M. (2016). Unequal household carbon footprints in China. Nature Climate Change, http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nclimate3165.html.