Emissions Metrics

Total annual emissions from a country’s territory are not the only way to measure contributions to global warming. Other common metrics include (a) cumulative emissions over many years, (b) per capita emissions, (c) emissions per unit of GDP (often referred to as “carbon intensity”), and (d) consumption-based emissions.

a. Cumulative CO2 emissions. Once emitted, CO2 remains in the atmosphere for many years. According to the IPCC, more than two-thirds of a pulse of CO2 remains in the atmosphere for several decades, and 15%–40% remains in the atmosphere for more than 1,000 years. Cumulative emissions over long time periods are an important measure of a country’s contribution to current global warming.[4]

One common metric is cumulative emissions since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-18th century. Roughly 13% of the CO2 emitted globally between 1751 and 2017 came from China. Roughly 25% came from the United States and roughly 22% from Europe.[5]

Cumulative CO2 Emissions 1751 to 2017

b. CO2 emissions per capita. In 2018, Chinese CO2 emissions were roughly 6.6 tons per person—much less than the United States (15.7 tons per person) and less than Japan (9.0 tons per person). China emits more CO2 per capita than Europe (5.7 tons per person) and much more than India (1.8 tons person) and Africa (1.0 ton per person).[7]

 

Per Capita CO2 Emissions from Fossil Fuels—2018

Within China, there are significant regional variations in per capita emissions.

  • The highest per capita emissions come from northern provinces, including Inner Mongolia, Ningxia and Shanxi. These provinces have many energy intensive industries and rely heavily on coal for power and heating. Some export electricity to other provinces.
  • The lowest emissions came from southern and western provinces, including Sichuan and Jiangxi. Heating demand is less, and hydro provides a greater share of the power supply in these provinces.[9]

There are also significant differences between urban and rural residents with respect to per capita emissions.

  • One study found 99 Chinese cities with per capita CO2 emissions greater than 10 tons per person (50% greater than the national average).[10]
  • Another study found that Chinese urban residents emit roughly 1.4 times more energy-related CO2 on average than Chinese rural residents.[11]
  • A third study found that the wealthiest 5% of the Chinese population, almost all of whom live in cities, have carbon footprints nearly four times greater than the Chinese average.[12] 
CO2 emissions per capita in 2012

c. CO2 emissions per unit of GDP (carbon intensity). In 2018, China emitted roughly 0.37 kg of CO2 from fossil fuels per dollar of GDP. The carbon intensity of China’s economy has been steadily improving for the past 15 years due to government policies, structural shifts in the Chinese economy (from manufacturing to services) and other factors. However China’s carbon intensity remains high in comparison with other major economies, including the United States (0.25), Japan (0.21) and the European Union (0.16).[14]

 

Carbon Intensity (kg CO2 from fossil fuels per $GDP PPP) 2018

d. Consumption-based emissions.

Consumption-based emissions accounting allocates emissions from production of a good to the place that good is consumed. Thus if a good is produced in Country A but consumed in Country B, emissions associated with producing that good are allocated to Country B. This contrasts with traditional territorial or production-based emissions accounting, which assigns all emissions that occur within a country to that country.

China is the world’s leading net exporter of goods. Many of the goods China exports are produced in carbon-intensive manufacturing processes. As a result, a consumption-based emissions accounting system reduces China’s CO2 emissions totals as compared to traditional territorial emissions accounting.

In a consumption-based emissions accounting system, China was responsible for roughly 25% of global CO2 emissions in 2016, according to one leading study. The United States was responsible for roughly 16%, the EU 12% and India 6%. Consumption-based emissions accounting reduces China’s annual CO2 emissions by roughly 14% as compared to traditional territorial emissions accounting.[16]

Production v. Consumption-Based CO2 Emissions - China 1990-2016

References


[4] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis at p.472 (Chapter 6, Box 6.1)

[5] Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, “CO2 and other Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” Our World in Data, based on data published by the Global Carbon Project (accessed August 4, 2019) (fossil fuel and cement emissions).

[6] Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, “CO2 and other Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” Our World in Data, based on data published by the Global Carbon Project (accessed August 4, 2019) (fossil fuel and cement emissions).

[7] BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019 (June 2019) at p.57 (emissions data); United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “World Population Prospects 2019” (accessed July 7, 2019) (population data). See also Matt McGrath, “China’s per capita carbon emissions overtake EU’s,” BBC News (September 21, 2014).

[8] BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019 (June 2019) at p.57 (emissions data); United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “World Population Prospects 2019” (accessed July 7, 2019) (population data).

[9] Zhu Liu, China’s Carbon Emissions Report 2016, Belfer Center, Harvard Kennedy School (October 2016) at pp.5–10; Zhu Liu, China’s Carbon Emissions Report 2015, Belfer Center, Harvard Kennedy School (May 2015) at pp.9–11.

[10] Zhu Liu and Bofeng Cai, High-resolution Carbon Emissions Data for Chinese Cities (June 2018) at p.9.

[11]. Stephanie Ohshita, Lynn K. Price, Nan Zhou, Nina Khanna, David Fridley and Xu Liu, The Role of Chinese Cities in Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction (September 2015) at p.4.

[12] Dominik Wiedenhofer, et al., “Unequal household carbon footprints in China,” Nature Climate Change (December 19, 2016).

[13] Zhu Liu, “China’s Carbon Emissions Report 2016,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School (October 2016) at p.9.

[14] BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019 (June 2019) at p.57 (emissions data, fossil fuels); International Monetary Fund, “GDP, current prices, purchasing power parity,” IMF Data Mapper (accessed July 7, 2019) (GDP data).

[15] BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019 (June 2019) at p.57 (emissions data, fossil fuels); International Monetary Fund, “GDP, current prices, purchasing power parity,” IMF Data Mapper (accessed July 7, 2019) (GDP data).

[16] Corinne Le Quéré et al., Global Carbon Budget 2018 at section 3.3.1 and accompanying data tables. See also OECD, “Carbon dioxide emissions embodied in international trade” (April 2019 update); Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, “CO₂ and other Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” Our World in Data (accessed July 6, 2019); Zeke Hausfather, “Mapped: The world’s largest CO2 importers and exporters,” Carbon Brief (July 5, 2017).

[17] Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, “CO₂ and other Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” Our World in Data; Corinne Le Quéré et al., Global Carbon Budget 2018 at section 3.3.1 and accompanying data tables.

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