Chinese Emissions and the Carbon Budget

In the Paris Agreement, more than 185 nations agreed to “hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C (3.6°F) above pre-industrial levels and pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C (2.7°F) above pre-industrial levels” (Article 2.1.a). According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, cumulative global CO2 emissions in the decades ahead must be less than (i) roughly 1170 Gt, to have a 66% or greater chance of meeting the 2°C (3.6°F) goal, and (ii) roughly 420 Gt, to have a 66% or greater chance of meeting the 1.5°C (2.7°F) goal.[54]

China’s emissions will have a significant impact on the world’s ability to achieve these goals. For example, if China were to keep emitting CO2 at its current pace of 11 Gt per year, it alone will use up roughly one-third of the global 2°C carbon budget by 2050 and one-third of the global 1.5°C carbon budget by 2032. If China’s CO2 emissions increase in the years ahead, as they did in 2017 and 2018, these goals become even harder to reach.

Of course, industrialized countries emitted far more CO2 than China during the past century. (CO2 stays in the atmosphere for many years once emitted.) Industrialized countries are responsible for most of the human-caused CO2 currently in the atmosphere and, in part for that reason, have agreed to take the lead in cutting emissions in the decades ahead. But however much other countries limit emissions in the decades ahead, Chinese emissions will have a big impact on the world’s ability to meet agreed climate goals.

—David Sandalow

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