“Pollution prosperity” is how one Chinese newspaper
frames the economic rise of China, which hinges on the steady guzzling of fossil fuels. In 2010 it surpassed the United States to become the largest consumer of energy
in the world, an honor that would normally be associated with being the most powerful economy in the world. While that might not be true for China — yet — the brisk pace at which China has caught up to the United States is alarming given that only a decade and a half ago, China’s energy consumption was half of that of the United States.
For a while now, the international community has been pushing China and India to give importance to environmental issues when they devise their social and economic policies. Chinese and Indian industries continue to emit large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere while damaging rivers, oceans and forests.
This pressure is hypocritical and justified at the same time. During the Industrial Revolution, which started in Great Britain and made its way to Western European countries and the United States, manufacturing industries contributed to a significant degradation of the environment. While this is not comparable to the levels of consumption the major economies of the world operate at today, it is pretty significant.
Neither Great Britain nor the United States would have ever reeled in their consumption of energy during the Industrial Revolution in order to protect the environment. To be completely honest, the United States doesn’t pay much attention to its environmental concerns today because it is already facing an economic challenge in the face of China and because pro-fossil fuel lobbies
in the United States are just too powerful. Regardless, much of the success and power of the Western world can be attributed to its rise during the Industrial Revolution. In fact, the Industrial Revolution is considered an important piece of the process known as the Great Divergence
, through which the Western world overtook Mughal India, Qing China, Tokugawa Japan and the Ottoman Empire.
But clearly, we cannot continue consuming energy the way we are, especially in light of the report
issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the United Nations, which observed that carbon emissions are now higher than ever before and that since the Industrial Revolution, about half
of the cumulative carbon dioxide emitted into our atmosphere has occurred over the last forty years
. The outlook is stark, but the report also concluded that much can be done to prevent this worst-case scenario, which would be catastrophic climate change.
To prevent the developing world from latching onto an opportunity that the Western world has already exploited seems fairly hypocritical. It seems eminent that in the next few decades, China will become the largest economy in the world and that India, if it can tackle some fundamental issues like corruption, will follow suit.
The Western world has to lead in this initiative if it seems to care so deeply about the environment. In the cacophony that surrounds the debate over the environmental policies of China and India, we forget that the second largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world is the United States. The European Union comes in at third with India, Russia, Japan and Germany following. It is, first and foremost, the responsibility of the developed world to realize that their current economic status has been attained by putting the environment at risk and they they must realize this to reduce carbon emissions. Economic policies that have benefited the Western world must be revisited.
Muhammad Usman is a columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.