Michael McCarthy: A vital initiative Beijing had to take

Related Topics

Look at the graph above. Look at the red line. Look at its dramatic slope upwards, after about 2002. It's one of the scariest things in modern history.

It shows the way China's emissions of carbon dioxide, the key greenhouse gas, soared in a way no-one ever expected they would, as the Chinese economy expanded explosively after the Millennium, with incredible, double-digit growth – at one stage more than 11 per cent per annum. As a result, Chinese emissions of CO2 doubled in a decade, from 3 billion tonnes to more than 6 billion tonnes annually, and by 2007 China had overtaken the US as the world's biggest carbon emitter.

Although no one knows the current figures yet, it is likely that they are now running at well over 7 billion tonnes per year, with the annual increase alone greater than the entirety of Britain's CO2 output of about 580 million tonnes a year.

This abrupt, gigantic surge in the amount of carbon going into the atmosphere threw previous calculations about the future progress of global warming into confusion, and is the main reason why world CO2 emissions are now at the top of the very highest pathway previously imagined by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They are now putting the world on course, an international commission of climate scientists reported last week, for a catastrophic 6C temperature rise by 2100.

Anything China can do about its emissions, therefore, is to be given a fervent welcome, and this is the first, enormous significance of yesterday's announcement – the simple fact that China is taking internationally pledged action about them.

The Chinese have always insisted that, to bring their people out of poverty, unhindered growth is their natural right – the rich West did it, after all – and resented any idea of CO2 reduction targets. But the country's leadership has come to accept that the threat of climate change is so severe that they too must act.

They are not yet pledging an emissions cut, as the developed countries are doing; they want to carry on growing.

But the promised reduction in the economy's carbon intensity does mean that the rate of increase in emissions should slacken – i.e. that the slope of the red line above will become less steep, rather than steeper. And as 90 per cent of all future emissions growth will come from China and its fellow developing countries, that is very much worth having.

The other enormous significance of yesterday's announcement is that the 45 per cent figure is "a number on the table", something that is essential for a deal between the two key carbon players, China and the US (which account for 40 per cent of world emissions between them) at the forthcoming Copenhagen climate conference. Its announcement was brought forward and made immediately after the US announced its own number – a 17 per cent cut in US emissions from a 2005 baseline – on Wednesday.

To have any chance of holding global warming to the danger threshold of a C rise will require, of course, far, far more than the US and China are pledging. It will require far more than the European Union is pledging. But it is a beginning.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Mechanical and Electrical Engineer

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of refrig...

Recruitment Genius: Concierge and Porter

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a customer focused, pro...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer / Front-End Designer - City of London

£27000 - £33000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End Devel...

Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Customer Support Technician

£15000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Waterlooville based softwa...

Day In a Page

Read Next

i Editor's Letter: The five reasons why I vote

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff

Daily catch-up: the gap between rich and poor has narrowed (a little) since the banking crisis

John Rentoul
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot