Is it true that China has surpassed the United States in carbon emissions and has more than doubled its output?

The main problem with this sort of national statistics is that it fails to take into account how the world actually works.

If you base your CO2 accounting on supply chains instead of each country’s industrial output, the result changes completely. It becomes clearer for any given country, the CO2 footprint increases with its economic development[1].

So yes, China is the biggest CO2 emitter today - even per capita - and that is because of two facts 1) its central role in global supply chains and 2) its own economic development - mostly cities. If you could only take into account the emissions for and by Chinese consumption, then China’s footprint will be smaller by order of magnitude.

Existing scales and measurements for carbon emissions are still unsatisfactory. Firm or city levels are much more informative than country level statistics, but auditing entire areas or supply chains are difficult and costly. And that’s without even mentioning all the existing counterincentives to the production of reliable statistics about carbon emissions.

Anyway as a rule of thumb, always be very careful when dealing with national statistics. They are political constructs and can be very misleading.


[1] The material footprint of nations

This text was originally published in quora.

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