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Commentary: China is a rich country. It can no longer cry poor on climate

Admin By Admin Nov29,2023

SYDNEY: At the time of the first major climate change conference, in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, China was one of the least developed nations. Its per capita income was below Haiti, Niger and Pakistan. The export sector was smaller than that of Sweden or Austria, and its airports saw fewer departures than Norway’s.

Its emissions were just 12 per cent of the global total, and on a per-capita basis it wasn’t even in the top 50 emitters. As recently as 1985, China had generated less electricity than Canada, and produced less steel than West and East Germany.

With nations set to gather for the latest such meeting in Dubai this week, things have changed beyond recognition.

China is likely to produce half the world’s steel and coal this year, and emit more carbon than every developed nation put together. Even adjusting for its huge population, it now consumes more energy and generates more pollution per person than most countries in Western Europe.

Visitors to its sparkling cities find a country whose amenities rival those of the richest nations. China’s roads, railways, power facilities, public buildings and other infrastructure now add up to a richer stock of public capital per capita than can be found in Australia, Spain or the United Kingdom.


One last crucial measure may soon flip. When China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, it was barely outside of the ranks of low-income countries, a category the World Bank reserves for the least developed nations.

That gave considerable weight to the claim that its emissions needed to be given a pass – that it should, in the language of climate diplomacy still quoted today, benefit from “common but differentiated responsibilities”.

Rapid growth relative to the world since the COVID-19 pandemic means it is now closely tracking the dividing line the World Bank uses to separate high-income nations from upper-middle-income countries. Low inflation and a stable exchange rate may push it above that level in a matter of months.

“It is very close to reaching the threshold for a high-income country,” said Penny Goldberg, a Professor at Yale University and the Bank’s chief economist from 2018 to 2020, by email. “It may not happen this coming year, but it will happen very soon.”

Economically, this would count as one of the most remarkable transformations in human history, and comes decades earlier than anticipated. In the same year as the Rio conference, former leader Deng Xiaoping said it would be “an extraordinary achievement” if China was able to attain the status of a moderately developed country by 2049.

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