Nick Butler: India will soon inherit the unwanted title of the world’s largest single source of emissions

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Nick Butler of the Financial Times is one of the more sensible commentators on energy out there. However, in his latest piece he has let the desire to construct a narrative get in the way of the facts.

Here is the troublesome paragraph:

China is now so central to the global energy market that whatever is done will send waves around the world. My bet is that we are about to see the Chinese government make a very serious move to limit coal use – with peak coal coming much sooner than the usual predictions suggest. Any advance in the technology of renewables anywhere in the world will be seized upon and applied. Gas imports will continue to grow. In each case global markets and prices will be affected. The policy will put great pressure on India which will soon inherit the unwanted title of the world’s largest single source of emissions.

Can you spot the implausible assertion?

Yes, it’s the claim that India will soon overtake China as the world’s number one emitter. If by “soon”, Butler means many decades, then he might be correct. If by “soon” he means a few years, he hasn’t looked closely enough at emissions data.

Here are the basic numbers. China now emits around 9.5 billion tonnes of energy related CO2 each year. This is a 2013 figure (from BP), and China has revised its coal production for that year by +8%. So, let’s just say that China emits 10 billion tonnes of CO2 each year.

However, this is 5 times higher than India, which now emits around 2 billion tonnes each year (1.93 billion in 2013, according to BP).

How long would it take India to catch up with China? History is perhaps a useful guide. China first emitted 2 billion tonnes of CO2 each year in 1985. So, it would take India a couple of decades at least to catch up with China. This is not “soon”, and it would also require India to match the astonishing growth of China in the last two decades. No easy task.

Again, we must recognise how high China’s emissions already are. Using the most recent emissions data from BP, and adjusting them for the +8% revision in coal production, China’s per capita CO2 emissions from energy were 7.5 tonnes.

7.5 tonnes is not loose change. In fact, it is greater than the per capita emissions in Britain and many other developed economies. And if you look at energy forecasts from the early 2000s, they all were predicting one thing: China would not exceed 7 tonnes per capita until the 2030s. They are a couple of decades ahead of schedule.

So, even if China manages to peak its CO2 emissions by 2030, those emissions will be far higher than anyone expected them to be.