In 2017, China’s emissions of CO2 from fossil fuel combustion were roughly 9.2 Gt. This was
roughly 27% of the world’s total. China’s CO2 emissions exceeded those from the United States
and European Union combined.2
Annual emissions are not the only way to measure contributions to global warming. Other
common metrics include:
● cumulative emissions over many years,
● per capita emissions, and
● emissions per unit of GDP (often referred to as “carbon intensity”).
i. 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.4 Cumulative emissions over long time periods are an important
measure of a country’s contribution to current global warming.
One common metric is cumulative emissions since the beginning of the Industrial
Revolution in the mid-19th century. From 1850 to 2014, cumulative CO2 emissions
from China totaled 169 Gt—roughly 12% of the global total. Cumulative CO2
emissions from the United States were 375 Gt (26%) and Europe 334 Gt (23%).5
Consistent with this, a study published in Nature in 2016 found that Chinese
emissions contribute 10% ± 4% of current global radiative forcing. (“Radiative
forcing” is a measure of the warming impact of heat-trapping gases.)6
ii. CO2 emissions per capita. In 2017, 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
(9.2 tons per person). China emits more CO2 per capita than Europe (5.6 tons per
person) and much more than India (1.8 tons person) and Africa (1.0 ton per person).8
WIthin China, there are significant regional variations in per capita emissions.
The highest per capita emissions come from northern provinces, including Inner
Mongolia, Shanxi, Shaanxi and Hebei. These provinces are heavily reliant on coal
for power and heating. The lowest emissions came from southern and western
provinces, including Sichuan and Jiangxi, where heating demand is less and hydro
provides a greater share of the power supply.10
There are also significant differences between urban and rural residents with
respect to per capita emissions. One study found that Chinese urban residents emit
roughly 1.4 times more energy-related CO2 on average than Chinese rural residents.
Another study found that the wealthiest 5.3% of the Chinese population, almost
all of whom live in cities, have carbon footprints nearly four times greater than the
iii. CO2 emissions per unit of GDP (carbon intensity). In 2017, China emitted roughly
0.40 kg of CO2 per dollar of GDP. The carbon intensity of China’s economy has
been steadily declining for the past several decades. However, China’s carbon
intensity remains high in comparison to other major economies, including the
United States (0.26), Japan (0.22) and the European Union (0.17).13
Chinese emissions per unit of GDP have been falling steadily since 2004. This
reflects steady improvement in energy efficiency throughout the Chinese economy,
in part driven by goals included in Five-Year Plans.
Chinese carbon dioxide emissions tripled between 2000 and 2012, reflecting the country’s
extraordinary economic growth during that period. Emissions kept growing until 2014, when
emissions held almost steady or—according to at least one estimate—declined. This break in
the pattern of rising emissions was the result of slowing economic growth, falling demand for
coal, growth in hydropower generation due to significant rainfall and increases in solar and
wind power. Chinese CO2 emissions continued to hold roughly steady in 2015 and 2016, with
some sources estimating modest increases and other sources estimating modest declines.15
In 2017 Chinese CO2 emissions increased, due mainly to growth in coal consumption, with
leading estimates varying from 1.4% to 4.1%.16
Most Chinese CO2 emissions come from the manufacturing, construction and energy sectors.
The sectoral composition of CO2 emissions is as follows:
● Manufacturing and construction sectors: 31%–34%
● Energy sector: 43%–53% (the wide range reflects different categorization schemes
by those making the estimates)
● Transport sector emissions: roughly 8%
● Residential and buildings: roughly 5%18
This sectoral composition of emissions is much different than in most developed countries.
In the United States, for example, roughly 22% of heat-trapping gas emissions come from the
industrial sector, 28% from the power sector and 28% from the transport sector.19
Land use change and forestry in China are a net sink, sequestering roughly 500 MT or just
under 5% of Chinese CO2 emissions in 2012, according to official Chinese sources.20
2. “BP Statistical Review of World Energy ” (June 2018) at p.49 (9.23 Gt, 27.6% of world total) (2018); IEA, “Global Energy and CO2 Status Report” (March 2018) at p.3 (9.1 Gt).
3. “BP Statistical Review of World Energy” (June 2018) at p.49.
4. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis” at p.472 (Chapter 6, Box 6.1), http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment report/ar5/wg1/WG1AR5_Chapter06_FINAL.pdf.
5. All figures excluding land use change and forestry. See World Resources Institute, CAIT Climate Data Explorer, http://cait.wri.org/historical (accessed June 24, 2018).
6. The study analyzed the impact of all heat-trapping gases, not just CO2. See Bengang Li et al., “The contribution of China’s emissions to global climate forcing,” Nature (March 17, 2016), https://www.nature.com/articles/nature17165.
7. World Resources Institute, CAIT Climate Data Explorer (accessed June 24, 2018).
8. See “BP Statistical Review of World Energy” (June 2018) at p.49 (emissions data); United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “World Population Prospects” (2017) at pp.17ff., https://esa.un.org/unpd/wpp/publications/Files/WPP2017_KeyFindings.pdf (population data). See also Matt McGrath, “China’s per capita carbon emissions overtake EU’s,” BBC News (September 21, 2014), http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-29239194.
9. See “BP Statistical Review of World Energy” (June 2018) at p.49 (emissions data) and United Nations
Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “World Population Prospects”(2017) at pp.17ff. (population data).
10. Zhu Liu, “China’s Carbon Emissions Report 2016,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School (October 2016) at pp.5–10, http://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/legacy/files/China%20Carbon%20Emissions%202016%20final%20web.pdf; Zhu Liu, “China’s Carbon Emissions Report 2015,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School (May 2015) at pp.9–11, https://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/files/publication/carbon-emissions-report-2015-final.pdf.
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,” Stockholm Environment Institute (September
2015) at p.4, https://repository.usfca.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.
com/&httpsredir=1&article=1016&context=envs; Axel Baeumler, Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez and Shomik Mehndiratta, eds., “Sustainable low-carbon city development in China,” World Bank (2012), https://siteresources.worldbank.org/EXTNEWSCHINESE/Resources/3196537-1202098669693/4635541-1335945747603/low_carbon_city_full_en.pdf; Dominik Wiedenhofer, Dabo Guan, Zhu Liu, Jing Meng, Ning Zhang and Yi-Ming Wei, “Unequal household carbon footprints in China,” Nature Climate Change (December 19, 2016), https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/zhu/files/nclimate3165_1.pdf.
12. Zhu Liu, “China’s Carbon Emissions Report 2016,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School (October 2016) at p.9, https://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/legacy/files/China%20Carbon%20Emissions%202016%20final%20web.pdf.
13. See “BP Statistical Review of World Energy” (June 2018) at p.49 and International Monetary Fund, “GDP, current prices, purchasing power parity” (accessed June 2018), http://www.imf.org/external/datamapper/PPPGDP@WEO/OEMDC/ADVEC/WEOWORLD?year=2018.
14. See “BP Statistical Review of World Energy” (June 2018) at p.49 and International Monetary Fund, “GDP, current prices, purchasing power parity” (accessed June 2018).
15. See Figure 1-8, “China’s Emissions of Heat-Trapping Gases.” See also Jan Korsbakken and Glen Peters, “A Closer Look at China’s Stalled Carbon Emissions,” Carbon Brief (March 1, 2017), https://www.carbonbrief.org/guest-postcloser-look-chinas-stalled-carbon-emissions.
16. IEA, “Global Energy and CO2 Status Report” (March 2018) at p.3 (1.7%); Jan Ivar Korsbakken, Robbie Andrew and Glen Peters, “China’s CO2 emissions grew less than expected in 2017,” Carbon Brief (March 8, 2018), https://www.carbonbrief.org/guest-post-chinas-co2-emissions-grew-less-expected-2017 (1.4%); Trevor Houser and Peter Marsters, “China Energy Snapshot 2017” (January 25, 2018), http://rhg.com/notes/china-energy-snapshot 2017?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=&stream=top-stories (2.2%–4.1%); “BP Statistical Review of World Energy” (June 2018) at p.49 (1.6%).
17. “BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2018” at p.49.
18. Based on data from roughly 2012 to 2014. See People’s Republic of China, “First Biennial Update Report on Climate Change” (December 2016) at p.25; IEA, “CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion 2016” (2016) at p.67, https://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/CO2EmissionsfromFuelCombustion_
Highlights_2016.pdf; World Bank, “World Development Indicators: Carbon dioxide emissions by sector,” (2017), http://wdi.worldbank.org/table/3.10; Zhu Liu, “China’s Carbon Emissions Report 2015,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School (May 2015) at p.3.
19. Based on 2016 data. See USEPA, “Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions (accessed June 23, 2018).
20. People’s Republic of China, “First Biennial Update Report on Climate Change” (December 2016) at p.22.