Greenhouse gas emissions from human activities have been the primary driver of climate change. Much of these emissions have come from China, which has had the world’s largest carbon footprint since 2004 and was responsible for 28.3 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions in 2017.
As the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, China has faced widespread criticism from the international community. Beijing also faces domestic pressure to address environmental concerns while maintaining economic growth. Having pledged to reduce its emissions intensity by 60 to 65 percent as part of the Paris Agreement, how China manages these challenges affects both its ability to emerge as a leader in sustainable development and the broader fight against climate change.
Top Emitters of Carbon Dioxide
Carbon Dioxide Emissions from Industry
China’s economic growth has primarily been powered by coal, which constituted an average of 69.9 percent of the country’s energy consumption between 1985 and 2016. Burning coal comes at a steep environmental cost, as it produces up to twice the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) as other fossil fuels. While nationwide coal usage has declined since 2014, China still consumes more coal than the rest of the world combined. As of 2017, coal represented 60.4 percent of the country’s total energy use.
Global Carbon Dioxide Emissions
Roughly 73 percent of China’s CO2 emissions – which is more than those from all European, African, and Latin American countries combined – results from this heavy dependence on coal. An additional 15 percent of its CO2 emissions come from oil. This high concentration of coal-based emissions differs from that of other major economies. While Japan leans on coal for a quarter of its generated electricity, it only constitutes 38.7 percent of Japan’s CO2 emissions – an almost even split with oil, which accounts for 36.7 percent. In the US, oil is the main source of CO2 emissions (44 percent), followed by natural gas (28.6 percent).
The industrial sector is China’s primary coal consumer. Manufacturing, agriculture, mining, and construction collectively made up 67.9 percent of China’s energy use and 54.2 percent of China’s coal use in 2015. Notably, this does not include power production activities, which were responsible for 41.8 percent of coal consumption.
Construction-related activities are among the main sources of carbon dioxide emissions. China’s extraordinary urbanization boom has intensified these activities. The production of cement and steel, which have undergirded China’s infrastructure development, both emit a large amount of CO2 during the refining process.
Between 2011 and 2013, more cement was consumed in China than what was used across the entire US over the course of the 20th century. Given that cement production releases 1.25 tons of CO2 per ton of cement created, it comes as little surprise that cement alone accounted for 7.8 percent of China’s carbon dioxide emissions in 2017. These emissions totaled 769 million tons of CO2, roughly 7 times more than India.
China manufactures half of the world’s steel, producing roughly five times more than the European Union. Similar to cement, steel production is a coal and coke-intensive process.1 Each ton of steel produces two tons of carbon dioxide. Some estimates peg steel processing as the source of more than 10 percent of China’s CO2 emissions.2
While most of these materials are consumed domestically, a notable portion is used overseas. In 2017, around 25 percent of the cement and 9 percent of the steel produced in China was exported. Given the scale of its production capacity, these moderate export figures have propelled China to become the world’s largest supplier of steel and cement.
Lessening the Emissions from Fossil Fuels
China has made a concerted effort to reduce industrial emissions. In 2018, Beijing introduced an action plan that requires 480 million tons of carbon capacity from steel production to meet “ultra-low emission” standards by 2020. China is likewise upgrading its power grid with more efficient “ultra-supercritical” plants, which produce more energy with less coal. This push will raise standards well past those currently in place in the US. According to the Center for American Progress, by 2020, “every coal plant operating in the United States would be illegal to operate in China.” Other state-driven measures include the 2013 introduction of carbon capture and storage (CCS)3, which remains in the early phases of development.
Other changes may further help China reduce its carbon dioxide emissions. According to the US Energy Information Administration, China is ramping up its use of natural gas. Compared to coal, natural gas emits 50 to 60 percent less carbon during the combustion process.
As of 2017, China was the world’s third largest consumer of natural gas after the US and Russia. China is also the third largest purchaser of liquified natural gas (LNG) from the US. In addition to environmental considerations, China may be seeking to boost LNG imports to help offset its trade surplus with the US. In early 2018, the China National Petroleum Corporation signed a 25-year contract with the US firm Cheniere Energy to purchase up to 1.2 million tons of LNG annually. While LNG has yet been untouched by the ongoing trade dispute between the world’s two biggest economies, escalating tensions could put it in the crosshairs.
|China's Top LNG Suppliers (2017)|
|Rank||Country||Percentage of LNG Imports|
|5||Papua New Guinea||6|
In late 2017, China’s National Resources Defense Council launched the Plan for the Establishment of National Carbon Credit Trading Market, a nationwide emissions trading scheme (ETS) that incentivizes companies to cut emissions by putting a “price” on CO2. The scheme’s 2011 pilot program, conducted in five cities within Hubei and Guangdong, was included in China’s 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015). The program has achieved some early success. Since its launch, approximately 38 million tons of CO2 have been traded in regional carbon markets.
Household Carbon Dioxide Emissions
For decades, coal has been a key source of domestic energy consumption. Over 72 percent of the electrical power generated in China in 2015 came from coal-powered plants, making coal a primary contributor to household CO2 emissions. Notably, household coal use is representative of China’s urban-rural divide. In 2015, urban household CO2 emissions predominantly resulted from natural gas (33.2 percent) and liquefied petroleum gas (26.1 percent). This is a similar breakdown to the developed countries of Europe and North America, where most household emissions come from these alternative fossil fuels. In contrast, coal contributes over 65 percent of China’s rural household emissions.
The Chinese government has taken steps to reduce household reliance on coal by hastening the transition to natural gas. In 2017, China’s Ministry of Ecology and the Environment (MEE) subsidized local officials to install electric or gas heaters in 3 million homes throughout villages and cities in Hebei, Shandong, Henan and Shanxi provinces. At the same time, the use of coal-fired stoves was banned. A lack of coordination between local and national governments, however, hampered this transition.
Beijing is also working to cultivate public support for energy conservation and environmental awareness. Events such as the “Annual Nationwide Energy-Saving Publicity Week” or “Nationwide Decrease Carbon Day” represent efforts taken by China’s MEE to educate the public on environmental goals stipulated in the 13th Five Year Plan and the Paris Agreement.
The Chinese government aims to have 5 million electric cars on the roads by 2020.
Motor vehicles represent another major source of emissions. There are more than 300 million motor vehicles on the road in China, over 30 million more than in the US. In addition to sheer volume, Chinese vehicles are often less efficient than those produced in Japan, Europe, or the US.
The Chinese government has taken measures to address this issue. In 2016, the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology proposed limits on fuel consumption for new motorcycles and mopeds.4 Two years later, production was suspended for over 500 car models that did not meet strict fuel standards.
|New Vehicle Emissions for Selected Countries (2014)|
|Country||Emissions (grams of CO2 eq/km)|
|Source: The International Council on Clean Transportation|
Additionally, the government has implemented multiple incentives to encourage the transition to electric vehicles (EVs). As of 2017, there were 1.23 million EVs in use in China, more than in Europe and the US, at 820,000 and 760,000 respectively. The already impressive fleet of electric vehicles in China is set to expand as well. The Chinese government aims to have 5 million EVs on the roads by 2020.
Given that China’s electric grid runs primarily on coal, this transition to EVs is not as green as it seems. When accounting for emissions from electrical consumption, Greenpeace notes that both electric cars and traditional cars in China have similar “CO2 emissions and PM2.5 levels per kilometer driven.” Furthermore, the lithium-ion batteries used to power EVs require enormous amounts of energy to produce, up to twice as much as is needed for manufacturing a standard combustion vehicle.
Other Types of Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Like all countries, China’s greenhouse gas emissions are not limited to carbon dioxide. Methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and fluorinated gases collectively account for nearly 20 percent of the country’s total emissions. This breakdown roughly corresponds to global emission averages.
These greenhouse gases have the potential to compound the environmental stress created by carbon dioxide. Methane is capable of trapping 25 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. One pound of nitrous oxide has 300 times the warming effect of one pound of carbon dioxide.
As China has developed, its emissions of nitrous oxide and methane have skyrocketed. According to the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL NEAA), China was responsible for 18.8 percent of global methane emissions (1.7 billion tons) and 18.4 percent of N2O emissions (545 million tons) in 2017. On both fronts, China’s emissions surpassed those of India, France, Germany and Russia combined.
CH4 is mainly produced by transporting and distributing energy sources, raising livestock, and managing wastewater and landfills. In 2016, 42.9 percent of China’s CH4 emissions came from its energy sector, such as coal mining and the transportation of gases. Although Beijing enacted new regulations in 2010 to curb methane emissions from coal mines, a 2019 study found that China’s total CH4 emissions continued to increase between 2010 and 2015. In addition to the energy sector, 38.2 percent of the methane emissions resulted from agricultural activities. In the US, energy-related industries contributed to 43.7 percent of the country’s methane emissions in 2016, and agriculture contributed 34.9 percent.
China’s agriculture-related emissions are largely a byproduct of rice cultivation, which made up 55 percent of its agricultural methane emissions in 2016.5 According to PBL NEAA, rice cultivation in Japan is likewise responsible for the majority (62 percent) of these emissions. As the world’s largest producer of beef, most of the agricultural methane released in the US comes from livestock instead.
|China's Non-CO2 Emissions by Sector (2016)|
|Sector||Volume (Mt CO2 eq)||Percentage|
|Indirect and Other||52||2|
|Source: PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency|
The agricultural and energy sectors are also the primary sources of N2O emissions. Nitrous oxide is mainly a consequence of agricultural soil management, such as fertilizer, as well as other industrial activities. The agricultural industry is the leading emitter of N2O in China, making up 73.7 percent of its emissions. By comparison, agricultural activities in India are responsible for 76.9 percent of its N2O emissions.
A Leader in Tackling Global Emissions
In recent years, China has taken a more active role in tackling global emissions. Beginning with its participation in the non-binding 2009 Copenhagen Accord and continuing to its ratification of the 2016 Paris Agreement, China is now positioned to help lead the charge against climate change. China’s ongoing commitment stands in contrast to that of the US, which announced its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in August 2017. President Xi Jinping has since emphasized that China is now “guiding international cooperation to respond to climate change.” Shortly after commencing his second term as president, Xi created the Ministry of Ecological Environment. The new ministry replaced the Ministry of Environmental Protection and was charged with leading the country’s battle against emissions.
|China’s Pledges and Targets|
|Copenhagen Accord||Carbon intensity reduction of 40% to 45% below 2005 levels||2020|
|Increase the non-fossil fuel share of energy supply to 15%|
|Paris Agreement||Peak CO2 emissions||2030|
|Carbon intensity reduction of 60% to 65% below 2005 levels|
|Increase the non-fossil fuel share of energy supply to 20%|
|Source: The Climate Action Tracker|
It is important to note that China has pledged to reduce carbon emission intensity, not impose a firm emissions ceiling. Carbon intensity measures the amount of carbon released per dollar of economic activity. As such, total emission levels could continue to climb if economic growth outpaces emissions. This has been the case with many OECD countries, where their emissions intensity has dropped but overall emission levels have either continued to grow or plateaued.
The Chinese government announced in March 2018 that it had achieved its Copenhagen emission reduction targets for 2020, which included reducing carbon intensity by 40 to 45 percent and raising the share of non-fossil fuel energy sources to 15 percent. According to Beijing, this achievement was largely due to the success of the carbon emissions trading system that was formalized in 2011. While undoubtedly a milestone, China’s carbon trading system is far from complete. The scheme is currently localized to the energy sector. Efforts to establish a national emissions cap and trade system have been delayed due to multiple technical problems, including a lack of reliable emissions data.
In order to boost alternative energy usage, Beijing pledged to install “340 gigawatts (GW) of hydropower capacity, 210 GW of wind and 110 GW of solar by 2020.” Nuclear energy is also part of China’s plan to reduce greenhouse emissions. The 13th Five-Year Plan stipulates a 16.5 percent annual increase in nuclear power capacity between 2015 and 2020. As China continues to increase the share of renewable energy, it is expected to surpass the 15 percent target set in the Copenhagen accord.6
An additional push may be needed if China is going to hit the targets set by the Paris Agreement. One of the goals of the agreement is to keep the global temperature rise in the 21st century under two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. It is estimated that China will need to increase its target for non-fossil fuel consumption from its current target of 15 percent to 26 percent by 2020 to meet this goal.
- Coke is a high-carbon content fuel that is made by heating coal and is often used in metal and chemical production.
- Kaile Zhou and Shanlin Yang, “Emission Reduction of China’s Steel Industry: Progress and Challenges,” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, Volume 61 (2016), 319-327.
- CCS traps and stores emissions either underground or underwater to help replenish oil and water reserves.
- The limits on fuel consumption are scheduled to come into effect in 2019.
- Flooding in rice paddies causes plant matter to break down into methane, which is released into the air during the tilling process.
- DNB, “China Energy Outlook,” China Update, July 12, 2017