China and India

China and India Laser Talk

Question:  Does it matter what we do if China and India keep burning fossil fuels?

Answer:  It matters a lot. China, the U.S., and India together emit half of the world’s greenhouse gases, but of those three countries, the U.S. emits the most by far per person. [1] Prior objections that China and India had not committed to reducing emissions are no longer valid, since both signed the Paris Agreement and are also taking action to address their part of the problem.

This question also presumes that policies to mitigate climate change will somehow be detrimental to the country taking those steps. This is a false premise because recent analyses show that the benefits of reducing fossil fuel emissions will outweigh the costs. [2,3,4]

China has undoubtedly taken these benefits into account when, in 2014, they launched seven regional carbon trading pilots, [5] and has now transitioned to a nationwide carbon trading system. [6] India has also made aggressive commitments to renewable energy in their power and transportation sectors. [7] In both countries, their initial motivation was largely to curtail severe air pollution, [8] but they also recognize that they are seriously vulnerable to the effects of climate change. [9,10]

This is a big challenge for countries where hundreds of millions don’t yet have electricity at all, as evidenced by China’s continued investment in coal along with renewables. [11] But since 2009, they’ve invested about $845 billion in renewables, 85 percent more than the U.S., and have really become, despite political pressure from their powerful coal sector, the world’s leading clean energy superpower. [12,13]

Some in the U.S. still question whether China and India will follow through on those commitments, but that cannot be an excuse for our own inaction. The U.S. should tackle climate change to benefit our own economy and public health and to restore our global leadership.

In a Nutshell:  Pointing fingers at China and India over carbon emissions ignores the fact that the U.S. emits far more per person than either of those countries. Furthermore, both are already enacting policies to limit their own emissions, despite having much smaller carbon footprints per capita. Maybe they are doing so because they’ve come to realize that strong climate policy will ultimately bring economic and health benefits that exceed the costs.

  1. “CO2 Emissions Per Country 2021.” World Population Review (accessed 16 Apr 2021).
  2. Allen, K. “Benefits far outweigh costs of tackling climate change, says LSE study.” The Guardian: Economics (12 Jul 2015).
  3. “Benefits of Curbing Climate Change Far Outweigh Costs.” Skeptical Science (12 Jun 2018).
  4. Howard, P. and D. Sylvan. “Gauging Economic Consensus on Climate Change.” Institute for Policy Integrity (Mar 2021).
  5. Timperley, J. “Q&A: How will China’s new carbon trading scheme work?” Carbon Brief(29 Jan 2018).
  6. Carpenter, C. “Toothless Initially, China’s New Carbon Market Could Be Fearsome.” Forbes (2 Mar 2021).
  7. Jaiswal, A. and S. Kwatra. “India Announces Stronger Climate Action.” Natural Resources Defense Council (23 Sep 2019).
  8. “China and India are home to nearly 90 per cent of cities with worst micro-pollution: Study .” The Straits Times (25 Feb 2020).
  9. Li, M. “Climate change to adversely impact grain production in China by 2030.” Int’l Food Policy Res. Inst. (13 Feb 2018).
  10. “Why India is most at risk from climate change.” World Economic Forum (21 Mar 2018).
  11. Timperley, J. “China leading on world’s clean energy investment, says report.” Carbon Brief(9 Jan 2018).
  12. Buckley, T. and S. Nicholas. “China’s Global Renewable Energy Expansion.” Institute for Energy Economic and Financial Analysis (Jan 2017).
  13. Mahapatra, S. “India Likely To Surpass 175 Gigawatts Of Renewable Energy Target By 2022, Says Minister.” CleanTechnica (27 Nov 2017).

This page was last updated on 05/06/21 at 18:40 CDT.