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The following meme has been shared circa Dec 2019 on social media and several blogs:

enter image description here

The text reads:

China's Carbon Emission Change Since 2000: +208%

India's Carbon Emission Change Since 2000: +155%

United States's Carbon Emission Change Since 2000: -10%

It also shows environmental activist Greta Thunberg pleased by the first two statements, and displeased by the third, implying that she is unreasonably critical of the United States.

  1. Are the changes in carbon emissions by these three countries over the past two decades accurate?

  2. Secondarily, is it the implied claim that Thunberg is very critical of carbon emissions by the United States but not by China or India true?

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    The implied claim is too vague. – Oddthinking Jan 27 at 2:02
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    This is something that, even if completely accurate, would still be misleading. It's not as though we in the US don't consume products made in India and China. We represent a nontrivial portion of the demand for carbon emission in India and China, so even if we don't emit the carbon ourselves, we certainly still encourage (and in fact depend on) its emission. – Charles Hudgins Jan 27 at 21:04
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    @CharlesHudgins What about the stuff the US produces? Assume it takes Apple 10 MT of carbon to design a new iPhone: should that 10 MT count towards US emissions or be distributed across the world? – Dmitry Grigoryev Jan 28 at 9:45
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    @DmitryGrigoryev Hard to say. That's why it doesn't really seem productive to me to compare emissions by country. Bear in mind that it's not just global demand for Chinese and Indian goods that complicates the argument implied by the image. Supply is also subject to globalization. If corporations are allowed to outsource production to countries with more lax environmental policies, then it seems to me that the home-country of that corporation shouldn't get credit for its relatively stricter environmental policies. Carbon emission is primarily an economic issue, and we have a global economy. – Charles Hudgins Jan 28 at 9:51
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    Welcome to Skeptics, where we don't care about your political opinions, so please stop posting them in comments and answers. – Oddthinking Jan 29 at 2:45
156

The gross emissions numbers are essentially accurate

Here's a chart from the U.S. Energy Information Administration:

Total CO2 emissions 1990 to 2017 for India, China, and the US

The World Bank and the International Energy Agency have similar values, but EIA's chart covers a longer period than the World Bank's, and is easier to set up than IEA's. All three data sources cover domestic emissions from fossil fuel combustion. The World Bank data also includes cement production.

Here are the start, end, and % change numbers for the three nations, using the IEA data (in million metric tons):

Country            2000       2017       Change
-----------------------------------------------
China             3,140      9,302         196%
India               885      2,162         144%
United States     5,730      4,761         -17%

Here are the same values using U.S. EIA data (in million metric tons):

Country            2000       2017       Change
-----------------------------------------------
China             3,523     10,419         196%
India               924      2,312         150%
United States     5,862      5,133         -12%

Two other ways of looking at the data give context

Per capita emissions in the U.S. are more than double those of India and China

From Our World in Data, here are the per capita emissions over the same time period for those three countries:

Per capita CO2 emissions 1990 to 2017 for India, China, and the US

From 2000 to 2017, the US rate decreased by 12%, while China and India both increased (by 167% and 88%, respectively). As of 2017, per capita emissions in the U.S. are 2.3 times higher than those of China, and 8.8 times higher than those of India.

Adjusted for trade, U.S. "imports" of emissions are growing, while India and China are net "exporters"

Our World in Data also has a detailed analysis of trade-adjusted CO2 emissions.

To calculate consumption-based emissions we need to track which goods are traded across the world, and whenever a good was imported we need to include all CO2 emissions that were emitted in the production of that good, and vice versa to subtract all CO2 emissions that were emitted in the production of goods that were exported.

Positive values indicate a country "outsources" it's emissions. Negative values mean a country is emitting CO2 to produce products which are ultimately consumed abroad.

Here are trade-adjusted emissions shares from 1990 to 2016 for the same three countries:

CO2 emissions embedded in trade, 1990 to 2016, for India, China, and the US

Some observations for the 2000 to 2016 period:

  • The U.S. is a growing net importer, increasing imports by 3.4 percentage points
  • China is a growing net exporter, increasing exports 2.1 percentage points (though this trend is moving in the opposite direction, towards lower exports, since about 2007)
  • India is a stable net exporter, with the import/export balance changing by less than half a percentage point
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    Also, the numbers would look different if one took a different year as comparison, say 2013 instead of 2000. – Carsten S Jan 27 at 9:50
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    Comments are for clarifying the answer, not for expressing your political opinions. – Oddthinking Jan 27 at 15:35
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    @CarstenS 1990 is the Kyoto protocol base year, which is why I included it in the charts. The memeist likely chose 2000 because it's a round number and close to a local maximum for the US, and a local minimum for China. – LShaver Jan 27 at 15:46
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    If a person in the US buys something made in china, which line on the chart gets bumped up, if any? – stannius Jan 27 at 17:25
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    Welcome to HNQ visitors. Please remember, before you comment, we don't care about your political opinions. – Oddthinking Jan 28 at 16:55
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The first point of the question about the actual emissions statistics has already been answered but let me add some information relevant to the second point

Secondarily, is it the implied claim that Thunberg is very critical of carbon emissions by the United States but not by China or India true?

The claim is clearly very nonspecific but there are a few concrete conclusions one might infer from it that can be tested against available evidence.

Does Thunberg hold the U.S. to different standards on future carbon emissions to China and India?

Yes. In the 2019 book No One Is Too Small To Make a Difference consisting of 11 speeches delivered by Thunberg published by Penguin, the U.S. and China are never mentioned by name, but in her 31 October 2018 speech at an Extinction Rebellion event in London, she did mention India by name:

Rich countries like Sweden need to start reducing emissions by at least 15 percent every year. And that is so that we can stay below a two degree warming target. Yet, as the IPCC have recently demonstrated, aming instead for 1.5 degrees Celsius would significantly reduce the climate impacts. But we can only imagine what that means for reducing emissions.

...

Nor does hardly anyone ever speak about the aspect of equity or climate justice, clearly stated everywhere in the Paris agreement, which is absolutely necessary to make it work on a global scale. That means that rich countries need to get down to zero emissions within 6 to 12 years with today's emission speed. And that is so that people in poorer countries can have a chance to heighten the standard of living by building some of the infrastructure that we have already built, such as roads, schools, hospitals, clean drinking water, electricity and so on.

Because how can we expect countries like India or Nigeria to care about the climate crisis if we who already have everything don't care even a second about it, or our actual commitments to the Paris agreement. So why are we not reducing our emissions?

This support for emissions standards which vary from country to country according to their circumstances, which she correctly identifies as being present in the Paris climate accord, is also reiterated in other speeches of hers without explicit mention of India.

Though Thunberg's example of choice when referring to "rich countries" is Sweden, it's fair to assume that she wouldn't dispute an interpretation that this also applies to the U.S. It might be a little more arguable whether China falls as comfortably under the same category as India, but in the context of comparing to the U.S. and India it's clear China at least has more in common with India in this area.

Is Thunberg critical of the U.S.'s carbon emissions?

Yes. As well as her longstanding critical stance on the emissions from countries in the category occupied by the U.S., Thunberg was recently more directly critical of the U.S.'s decision to withdraw from the Paris accord, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos on 21 January 2020:

The fact that the U.S.A. is leaving the Paris accord seems to outrage and worry everyone, and it should. But the fact that we’re all about to fail the commitments you signed up for in the Paris Agreement doesn’t seem to bother the people in power even the least.

Although this directly gives voice to her disapproval of the U.S.'s actions, it's notable in the context of this question that even this instance of direct commentary arises in the course of arguing that a focus on the U.S.'s failings specifically is too narrow.

Is Thunberg happy about China's and India's carbon emissions?

I was unable to find specific comment from Thunberg on the current performance from these countries. However the quote above makes clear that she does express an expectation that these countries should care about the climate (and implicitly take action) so any suggestion that she would be happy with their emissions however high would be demonstrably false.

Does Thunberg deploy more critical comment against countries like the U.S. than she does against countries like China and India?

While this is a subjective thing to assess it is pretty clear that she does. However an analysis of how Thunberg invests her time cannot straightforwardly be extrapolated to judge the relative favorability she expresses about these countries. Her choice of focus is likely influenced by other factors, not least that her home country, Sweden, is one that falls into her "rich countries" category.

  • From the quote, it cant be concluded that she holds different countries to different standards. The (subjective) standard could be that all countries have the right to equal carbon budgets throughout history, not per year. Holding people to different standards has negative connotations, but the term is to vague to allow a clear yes or no answer. Apart from that, nice answer! – Anders Jan 30 at 9:24
  • @Anders agreed. I added the word "future" to try to narrow the scope but still not sure this is totally satisfactory. I can't think of language that gets across the same principle succinctly without leaving open the broader "moral standards" interpretation though. They aren't targets because she has never been so specific, and they aren't expectations because she clearly isn't optimistic about getting her demands enacted! – Will Jan 30 at 9:42
  • Thanks! Maybe something along the line of "Does Thunberg think the US has a larger responsiblity for future emission cuts than China and India?". But I don't know if that works. The post is good as it is as well, +1 from me. – Anders Jan 30 at 9:57
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It turns out Thunberg was asked what she thinks of China and India in an interview with The Times of India. Some excerpts:

What is your message for Prime Minister Narendra Modi?

Take this seriously and act. Otherwise in the future you will not be taken seriously. You have such a big responsibility and if you don’t do something, you will be much blamed for this crisis.

[...]

Why protest in Sweden and London and not in China which is probably creating the most emissions in the world?

If I get an invitation to China, I will be very happy. Since I don’t fly, I would have to go by train and that takes longer than going to, for example, London, maybe by weeks. So, I would have to start planning in advance.

[...]

Is China responsible for a lot of the greenhouse emissions in the world?

Every country is responsible in some part, but there are a lot of factories in China and they manufacture a lot of the stuff that the western world buys.

Do you think India is also contributing a lot to greenhouse emissions?

Of course. According to statistics, India is one of the top countries in the world that emits. India emits a lot since they have a lot of people and they have very dirty coal and so on.

Does the Indian government have a strategy in place to deal with this?

No. I don’t think any country has a strategy to deal with this.

[...]

What message would you like to give the Indian public?

We are facing an existential crisis. We need to fully understand the consequences…demand action.

Is there anything you would like to see Indians do specifically, like move to electric cars, solar power?

The most important thing everyone needs to do right now is to read and educate yourself. You will understand what you have to do. I am just a child, just a messenger.

I'll let you be the judge whether what she about China and India said translates into a smiley or frowny face...

On the other hand, the implication from the img that she is entirely unhappy with the US because of its climate record since 2000 is clearly wrong because she didn't have that frowny face when meeting Obama; her frowns were reserved for Trump.

If you want some comment of hers in which she sets apart the rich from the poor countries...

And please note that these figures are global and therefore do not say anything about the aspects of equity, which is absolutely necessary to make the Paris Agreement work on a global scale. And that means that richer countries need to get down to zero emissions much faster and then help poorer countries do the same so that people in less fortunate parts of the world can raise their living standards.

So yeah, she thinks everyone should be reducing emissions, the richer nations faster than the poorer ones.

Also interesting perhaps:

Thunberg tweeted Monday that she, along with 15 other children hailing from 12 countries, had filed a legal complaint accusing five countries of inaction on global warming that violated the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, and Turkey were mentioned in the petition. [...]

The five named countries join 44 others that ratified the convention's power to hear complaints against them; however, the United States and China, which are the biggest culprits among the world's top greenhouse-gas emitters, haven't signed the section of the treaty allowing children to seek justice for infringements.

As a result, China and the US were not included in the complaint.

India has also not signed that additional protocol. But some of the countries named in the suit, like Brazil or Turkey, are both fairly big [population-wise at least] and are developing countries.


As an aside, the left side of the pamphlet that makes the topic of this question mirrors quite well the usual criticism that the Trump administration has levelled at China and India as well as what they are allowed to do under the Paris Agreement, e.g.

President Donald Trump announced he was withdrawing from the agreement, he singled out both nations.

“China will be allowed to build hundreds of additional coal plants. So, we can’t build the plants, but they can, according to this agreement. India will be allowed to double its coal production by 2020. Think of it: India can double their coal production. We’re supposed to get rid of ours,” Trump said last Thursday. He added that the Paris agreement “is less about the climate and more about other countries gaining a financial advantage over the [United States].”

[...]

India is a beneficiary of the Green Climate Fund, which helps developing countries adapt practices to mitigate climate change. Trump lashed out at the fund when he announced the U.S. exit from Paris, and he has repeatedly said the United States will not provide the remaining $2 billion the Obama administration pledged. If India loses the financial support helping to fund its projects, there’s reason to be concerned that its climate efforts could be hindered as well.

So yeah, there are concerns that the US exiting the plan, which does involve rich countries paying the poor to reduce their emissions, could also make the poorer countries do (even) less.

As bit more historical context, India actually has soften their position around 2009 (Copenhagen). For a long time [before] they held that they should do practically nothing regarding climate change until they become as developed/emitting (per capita) as the west, e.g.

India then hosted COP-8 in New Delhi from 23 October to 1 November 2002. During this conference, India rejected pressure on poor nations to step up efforts to tackle global warming by cutting GHG emissions. The then Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, argued that countries like India still produced only a fraction of the global GHG emissions and could not afford the costs of cutting them. Opening the ministerial talks at the Conference, he insisted that poor countries should not be forced to set targets for reducing GHG emissions and stated: ‘Climate change mitigation will bring additional strain to the already fragile economies of the developing countries and will affect our efforts to achieve higher GDP growth rates to eradicate poverty speedily’ (Gaur, 2003: 286).

In the COP-13 at Bali, India reiterated its position on GHG reduction [...]

The then Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, in his statement at the General Debate of the 63rd UN General Assembly, reiterated the well-articulated Indian position when he confirmed support for multilateral negotiations taking place under the UNFCCC. However, ‘[t]he outcome must be fair and equitable and recognize the principle that each citizen of the world has equal entitlement to the global atmospheric space’ (Prime Minister’s Office, 2008a).

In translation: they are allowed to emit as much GHG per capita as the rich countries. As for what their position morphed into...

Singh (2011) said:

[...] We have to make changes in our lifestyles, particularly in the developed world, and learn to make do with less. In developing countries, poverty eradication will have to be linked to the availability of clean, renewable and affordable energy. [...]

Modi himself added a new component to India’s policy on climate change while addressing the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) when he said: ‘Too often, our discussion is reduced to an argument about emission cuts. But, we are more likely to succeed if we offer affordable solutions, not simply impose choices’ (Ministry of External Affairs, 2015).

In translation: if clean energy is not affordable enough for us, we stick with "plan A". I haven't followed the declarative stances of China, but a recent FT article (paywalled sorry) goes into some details on China's re-emphasized plans on coal this year, following their economic slowdown.

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