Who's rougher on the environment: China or India?
Who's rougher on the environment: China or India?
Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
Dec. 14 2010 7:12 AM

China vs. India

Who's the Greener Emerging Power?

Pollution in China. Click image to expand.
Pollution in China

Politicians opposed to unilateral reductions in U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions often claim that China and India are the real problem. Some have even supported legislation barring federal regulation of carbon dioxide emissions until the world's most populous nations do the same. China and India are always lumped together as if they're the same ecological disaster waiting to happen. But which of the two countries is more dangerous to the environment?

Before pitting Asia's behemoths against one another in a cage match of environmental destruction, we should note that Westerners remain unsurpassed in the field. Take, for instance, greenhouse-gas emissions. As of 2007, the average American was responsible for 19.8 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually, with Australians, New Zealanders, and Canadians in hot pursuit. China (at 4.7 metric tons per person) and India (1.2 metric tons per person) lag far behind. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, neither country is likely to surpass the United States for decades.

It also bears mentioning that China produces one-third of its CO2 emissions (PDF) manufacturing goods for export. Forty percent of the consumer goods purchased in the United States are made in China, representing more than 18 percent of China's total exports. So blaming China for climate change is a bit like blaming your chauffeur for using so much gas.

But if forced to limit the field to the rising Asian powers, China is clearly poised to do more environmental damage over the next few decades than India. Despite having lower per-capita emissions, China surpassed the United States as the largest total emitter of greenhouse gases in 2007. India is in fourth place, with less than one-third the output of China. To boot, China's upward trend in emissions is the steepest in the world. In 2000, China consumed just 9 percent of the world's energy. By 2007, that share had reached 16 percent. India's share of global energy consumption, in contrast, rose from 3 percent to 4 percent during the same period.

Though India's population is growing faster than that of China, the difference isn't nearly enough to offset the widening gap in per-capita emissions. According to some estimates, the two countries will have approximately the same population in 2035, about 1.49 billion residents each. If those estimates prove correct, China will be responsible for more than six times as much carbon dioxide emissions than India. Fifteen years later, when India has 191 million more people than China, China will still emit 10 billion more metric tons of CO2 than India. To put the difference in perspective, that difference is the equivalent of putting 1.9 billion extra cars on the road, three times the number of cars currently in use worldwide.

Of course, there's more to environmental health than carbon dioxide. Pollution plagues many Indian and Chinese cities—but again, China appears to have it worse. According to a 2007 study (PDF) by the Blacksmith Institute, an environmental research organization, China is home to six of the world's 30 most polluted cities, while four are in India.

Linfen has become the poster child for polluted Chinese cities, with journalists filing stories from the blighted industrial burg that suggest a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Unregulated coal mines, steel factories, and refineries have left half of the town's well water unsafe to drink, and cancer rates are way above average. The sun sets far above the horizon, and children scavenge for lumps of coal that fall from the backs of trucks.

India, though not having quite reached China's levels of air pollution, still has little to brag about. The number of cars in India increases by 20 percent every year, and its government set fuel-economy standards for the first time this year.

Despite its surging environmental exploitation, China may be better poised than India to address pollution and climate change. Authoritarian governments, while we might not like their tactics, can really get things done when they want to. Take the Olympics. The government relocated nearly 15,000 residents, some allegedly without their consent, just to build a few stadiums. India, with its vibrant, raucous democracy and robust access to the court system, struggled not to embarrass itself when hosting the considerably lower-profile Commonwealth Games. If the Chinese Communist Party decides the country is going to clean up its act environmentally, there's little anyone can do to stop them. (The closest thing India has to an environmental dictator is its Supreme Court, which unilaterally capped the number of auto rickshaws in Delhi in 1997 and then forced them to switch to clean natural gas by 2002 to clear the capital's air.)

China's economic surplus has also enabled the government to make massive investments in clean energy. The country increased its wind-power output more than twentyfold between 2003 and 2008 and plans to increase that by eightfold again by 2020. India just doesn't have the cash for initiatives like that. Its per-capita GDP is less than half of China's, and is growing more slowly—6.4 percent in 2009 compared to China's 8.7 percent.

Economists are closely watching the environmental policies of both rising powers, because they represent test cases of the controversial environmental Kuznets curve (PDF), which hypothesizes that a country's pollution levels rise, level off, then fall as per-capita income increases. Early proponents of the theory in the 1990s rejected the prevailing belief that economic development inevitably results in increased pollution. Rather, they argued that economic development is prerequisite for responsible environmental stewardship. In the coming years, we'll find out whether the race for Asian economic supremacy is a race to the bottom or to the top for the environment.

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Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and Earthwire. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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