It is fashionable to blame large poorer countries, or even the whole continent of Africa, for the world’s failure to act quickly enough on climate change. Sometimes this is based on borderline-racist arguments about population growth, despite the awkward fact that one average European causes as much climate pollution as 11 average Africans. Mostly it is based on ignorance.

The crucial basis of international climate agreements, stemming from the first one in 1992, is that obligations must recognise the capability of countries to change their ways and their historical responsibility for causing climate change. So the rich, industrialised countries have to do more, faster.

China commits to carbon neutrality by 2060

China is often singled out for finger pointing, being the world’s most populous nation and the world’s biggest climate change contributor. Although we should remember that much of the huge economic growth and therefore rise in climate emissions is directly or indirectly driven by the factories which are producing mega-tonnes of stuff we in the rich countries import. Even though we don’t really need most of it.

Last week China committed to set emissions on a downward path by the end of the decade and to being carbon neutral by 2060. Of course, like almost all international pledges on climate change, it’s not fast enough, but it is still hugely significant. If delivered it is estimated that this one pledge by one country would reduce the global temperature increase in 2100 by between 0.2 and 0.3ºC. It doesn’t sound much but stopping at 2ºC rather than 2.3ºC could save whole island nations, prevent many species from going extinct and save perhaps millions of people’s lives annually.

There isn’t a plan to deliver on China’s new target yet but, if taken seriously, it will influence the big infrastructure decisions that lock in roads, airports, factories and power plants for decades.

India has set targets to massively increase the amount of electricity coming from solar panels, including providing power for the first time to many of the 200 million people who have no regular access to electricity.

An African-led renewable energy initiative aims to bring green power to the continent in a massive way, with targets for at least 300GW by 2030, about one and half times the current capacity in all the EU countries.

Rich nations too slow to act on climate

Last year a UN review of action on climate promises concluded that poorer nations were leading the way on taking action and increasing their climate ambitions. The report looked at the stage countries were at in preparing to revise their climate plans – the National Determined Contributions required under the 2015 Paris Agreement. It ought to be easier for rich, technologically advanced nations to up their ambition but it is the poorer nations which are leading the charge.

Similar analysis looking at whether countries are on-track to deliver on their existing pledges ranked China and India as doing well, whereas that other major source of climate emissions, the United States, is of course doing terribly. India’s commitments are already what is needed to keep the global temperature rise below 2ºC, China needs to do even more than its new pledge.

The same analysis found that only two countries – Morocco and the Gambia – have climate plans consistent with keeping the world below 1.5ºC and all six countries with plans good enough for 2ºC are poorer countries. At the other end, countries who would put the world over 4ºC of warming include Russia, Saudi Arabia and the US.

So next time you are at a virtual dinner party or braving a pub conversation, and someone is waffling on about China or Africa, do put them right.

Dr Richard Dixon is Director of Friends of the Earth Scotland. A version of this article appeared in The Scotsman on Tuesday 29 September 2020.

If you want to learn more about the UN climate negoitations that are coming to Glasgow in 2021, check out this Boiling Point webinar series from the COP26 coalition.