Taking responsibility for carbon emissions

China’s efforts to control sulphur dioxide emissions divert the focus from the real problem: the country’s growing greenhouse-gas emissions, says Feng Yongfeng. Consumers must now consider the role they can play in reducing China’s carbon footprint.

In the past, air pollution in China was simply regarded as a question of controlling “industrial smoke and dust”. But this has changed, and now sulphur dioxide is firmly at the top of China’s pollution-control agenda. In May 2006, China’s State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) ordered the country’s five main electricity producers to produce detailed plans for reducing their sulphur dioxide emissions, with the aim of reducing their emissions in 2010 to 10% below the 2005 level.

To China’s embarrassment, it is the world’s largest emitter of sulphur dioxide and the world’s second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide. In October 2006, an international conference, Strategic Approaches to Regional Air Quality Management in China, was held in Beijing, and the local environmental-protection directors who spoke all focused on sulphur dioxide. But some experts have suggested it is now more important to look for ways to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions.

Zhou Guoyi and colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Southern China Botanical Garden recently published a report in China’s Science magazine. After 25 years of research on old-growth forests in south China’s Dinghushan, in Guangdong province, the scientists concluded that the soil in old-growth forests has considerable capacity for carbon storage. They found that the top 20 centimetres of soil in every square kilometre of mature forest can store 0.61 tonnes of carbon dioxide every year. This provides even greater impetus for the protection of China’s natural forests, and disputes traditional ideas that regard old-growth forests as nothing more than “carbon neutral,” with carbon uptake balanced by respiration.

But what do these results really mean? Will people come to realise the dangers of carbon dioxide emissions? And when a British economist issued a stark warning on climate change, how many Chinese people took notice of the impending disaster?

Liu Dongsheng, a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, points out that the planet’s periodic ice ages mean that some cycles of warming and cooling are normal. But natural cycles of warming would result in increased vegetation in the northern hemisphere, rather than the drought and desertification that are so serious in places such as northern China today.

Paleoclimatologists have gathered considerable evidence from the ice caps, the seabed, deep soil, caves and fossilised trees to show that increases in carbon dioxide emissions since the industrial revolution correlate with rising global temperatures, and that current temperatures are the highest in 420,000 years. This has lead some to propose that we have entered the “Anthropocene” era, in which human activity has a significant effect on the life of the planet. However, some put the dawn of this era as early as 10,000 years ago, when humans first started to plant grain and raise animals, resulting in emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas with 20 times the global-warming potential of carbon dioxide.

Industry has released huge amounts of carbon dioxide contained in the soil, in wood and in ice into the atmosphere. On top of this, we have felled large numbers of trees, turned forests and grasslands into fields, built cities on coastal shallows and drained swamps in order to plant crops. Even those fields have now become “industrial development parks”; single-storey buildings have become skyscrapers; and our once-clear streams are completely polluted. Humans have committed two major environmental faults: as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased through our activity, we have also slashed the earth’s vegetation coverage – and its capacity to absorb the carbon dioxide we are producing.

Many place the burden of environmental responsibility on the shoulders of government and business, but this leaves out our own role in the situation. China became the “workshop of the world” because of cheap raw materials and a lack of environmental responsibility. Companies did not need to pay the true price of materials, for environmental recovery or compensation, and so that cost was not passed onto the consumer. Both government and business act on behalf of society; carbon dioxide emissions are a result of our lifestyles and consumption habits. The duty of environmental protection lies not only with the manufacturers; it is time to look at the responsibility of the consumer. Consumption creates carbon-dioxide emissions, and therefore consumers should feel a responsibility to reduce them. Only when people realise this will they be willing to pay “environmental taxes” to compensate resource depletion and pay for environmental improvement. After all, both government funding and corporate profits come foremost from consumers.

The more progressive among us are already taking up the cause. For example, the Costa Rican football team at the 2006 World Cup offset all the carbon dioxide emissions incurred in their participation in the competition. Very simple formulas can be used to calculate the carbon dioxide emissions that an individual is responsible for. All you need to do is visit a website, press a few keys to answer questions about what you consume, and you will get the results in seconds. And by calculating the cost of your consumption according to international carbon trading prices, you can work out your debt to the global environment.

But what should the money be used for? The answer is simple: improving the environment. It could be by planting trees or protecting permanent vegetation, restructuring industry or researching technologies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Only when we make up our minds to really do something about our carbon responsibility, will China’s carbon emissions get the attention they deserve and will practical solutions be found.

Now is the time to discuss our personal carbon responsibility and cut down our carbon emissions, to simply focus on sulphur dioxide is not enough.

Feng Yongfeng is technology correspondent for the Guangming Daily.

Homepage photo by Patrick Rioux