Enter the Dragon

It’s been called the new scramble for Africa. China’s growing presence on our continent must surely be a sign that the next global giant is stirring. Leonie Joubert looks to the East.

Remember Chappies wrappers? They had those quirky “did you know” facts printed on the inside. Maybe they still do? I don’t know. I haven’t bought one in yonks (that used to be adolescent code for “like, forever”. Although I doubt it still is. But I wouldn’t know, I haven’t been a teenager for… well, yonks).

Where was I? Ah yes, Chappies wrappers. One wrapper factoid said, if my memory serves me, that if all the people in China jumped in unison, Earth would shake. That’s probably a bit of a stretch. But it did illustrate the point, because it’s a big country, with a helluva lot of people. A staggering 1.3 billion, and growing.

What’s interesting, from the perspective of climate change and greenhouse gas pollution, is that size doesn’t necessarily matter. Because so much of that population lives close to the poverty line, their overall carbon emissions are small, relatively speaking.

Take a look at this comparison: the United States, with about five percent of the world’s population (300-odd million), produces around 20 percent of all the greenhouse gas emissions put up into the sky every year. China, with 20 percent of the global population, puts out about 13 percent of annual emissions. So when you work out the amount of carbon emissions per person, China only puts out around 4 tons per person; the US puts out a staggering 25 tons per person. The wealthier a society, the larger their carbon footprint, even if each developed world family only has 2.4 children.

But the status quo is changing. As China ramps up its development plans, it’s going to start closing that gap fast. Not only is China’s economy growing (at something like three times the global average, which is why we’re seeing it fishing for resources here in Africa), but it’s doing so by using the dirtiest form of all the fossil fuels: coal.

Most of China’s electricity comes from chucking coal down the chutes of power stations and its government has no intention of changing this policy in the short term. In fact, its reliance on coal is expected to double by 2020. This sparked at least one leading science journal, Nature, to say China has the potential to singlehandedly emit enough CO² to undo all other nations’ efforts to control their greenhouse gas emissions in the next few decades.

It’s kind of ironic. After eight years of the George W Bush Republican administration, I was beginning to think we’d never see the end of the pro-oil position in the White House, with all its global implications. Barack Obama’s win is a significant shift in the landscape of US politics, and some of his first statements regarding energy suggest that we’ll see them steering towards greener renewable options.

Yet even as this happens, the slumbering behemoth, China, begins to stir. Unless China agrees to change its position on coal, all the rest of the world’s efforts might be for naught. What’s doubly ironic, though, is that the rest of the world has been gorging itself on cheap Chinese exports for years, fuelling the very economic growth we’re coming to resent. We really are beginning to reap the whirlwind.

Leonie Joubert





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