If you’ve been involved in any conversation around climate breakdown, climate protests or moving to a low carbon future, you’re probably familiar with one question that comes up again and again: what about China?
This question, let’s be honest, is often not used in good faith. It’s used as a reason to dismiss protests in other countries, or as an argument that policy reform and systemic change is pointless when ‘China is the real source of the problem’. Frustrated by the common use of this argument to shut down meaningful discussion, I decided to do some research and find out what is actually going on in China.
Unsurprisingly, the situation is actually a lot more nuanced than it seems. Here’s what I learned.
Emissions & China
China is currently the world’s biggest polluter, responsible for more emissions than the US and EU combined. It has had the world’s largest carbon footprint since 2004, and was responsible for 28.3% of CO2 emissions in 2017.
However, it is not the only large polluter, and reducing China’s emissions alone will not stop the climate crisis. Together China, the EU and the US are responsible for more than half of total global emissions, while the bottom 100 countries are responsible for 3.5% of emissions.
If we instead look at this data in terms of per capita emissions, China drops to 12th place. The US is third, behind Saudia Arabia and Australia, and the UK is 13th. Considering the drastic differences in population between these countries (China has 1.386 billion people while the US has 327.2 million, Saudia Arabia 32.9 million, Australia 24.6 million and the UK 66 million), this already shows how pointing fingers at other countries based on one set of data alone is, at best, problematic.
Sources of emissions
When it comes to causes of emissions, the main reason China’s have been so high is because the country has been so heavily reliant on coal. Around 73% of China’s CO2 emissions, more than those from all European, African, and Latin American countries combined, come from this reliance. Coal is notoriously one of the dirtiest sources of pollution, producing up to double the amount of CO2 compared to other fossil fuels.
Coal usage has declined since 2014 in China, sitting at about 60.4% of the country’s total energy use in 2017, however China still consumes more coal than the rest of the world combined. Most of this coal is consumed by the industrial sector: manufacturing, agriculture, mining and construction made up 67.9% of China’s energy use and 54.2% of China’s coal use in 2015. Power production was responsible for 41.8% of coal consumption.
Construction is another particularly significant source of CO2 emissions, intensified by China’s urbanisation boom. The production of cement for building emits large amounts of CO2 (1.25 tons per ton of cement) during the refining process, and this material is a key component of China’s infrastructure. From 2011 – 2013 for example, more cement was consumed in China than all the cement used across the USA through the whole 20th century, and in 2017 cement alone accounted for 7.8% of China’s CO2 emissions.
China also manufactures half the worlds steel, producing around five times more than the EU. Each ton of steel produces 2 tons of CO2, with steel processing potentially accounting for more than 10% of China’s CO2 emissions.
While many of these materials are used domestically, it’s worth noting how much is used overseas. In 2017, around 25% of the cement and 9% of the steel produced in China was exported. If we want to blame China solely for emissions, we have to acknowledge that at least part of this is driven by the west pushing manufacturing of these carbon-intensive industries into China in the first place.
The urbanisation boom in China has also led to vast changes in the way people live. By 2010, nearly half the Chinese population were in cities, while another 280 million are expected to move from rural areas to cities by 2025. On average, urban populations consume nearly three times as much energy as those in the countryside, making these demographic shifts incredibly significant.
In 2015 over 72% of China’s electricity came from coal plants, making coal a primary contributor to household CO2 emissions. However, in China, there is a more distinct urban-rural divide. In the same year urban emissions predominantly resulted from natural gas (33.2%) and liquefied petroleum gas (26.1%), which is similar to most of Europe and North America. In rural areas, however, coal made up over 65% of emissions.
Vehicles are also a major factor, as China has more than 300 million motor vehicles on the road, 30 million more than in the US, which are often less efficient than models in other countries. In response, China proposed limits on fuel consumption for new motorcycles and mopeds and later suspended production of over 500 car models that did not meet strict fuel standards. The government has also introduced various incentives to encourage the transition to electric vehicles. As of 2017, there were 1.23 million electric vehicles in use in China, more than in Europe (820,000) and the US (760,000), and the government aims to have 5 million on the roads by 2020.
This transition alone is not enough, because China’s electric grid still primarily runs on coal. Right now in China both electric cars and traditional cars have similar “CO2 emissions and PM2.5 levels per kilometer driven.” according to Greenpeace. That being said, getting everything hooked up to a centralised grid system and then working to decarbonise that is easier than doing things the other way around. Therefore I don’t think this move should be completely ignored, unless China shows that it doesn’t want to pursue cleaning up its electricity grid at all, which so far doesn’t seem to be the case.
Additionally, if we’re comparing to other countries, it’s worth noting that the highest source of US emissions is vehicles. Where China has adopted policy to move away from polluting vehicles, the US is stripping states of their rights to impose strict emissions standards for vehicles.
Other types of emissions
Aside from CO2, China also has to deal with other emissions like methane and nitrous oxide, which account for nearly 20% of the country’s total emissions (roughly the same as global emission averages). It’s important that we also look at these emissions, because Methane is capable of trapping 25 times more heat in the atmosphere than CO2, and one pound of nitrous oxide has 300 times the warming effect of one pound of carbon dioxide.
China’s record with methane and nitrous oxide is not great. In 2017 China was responsible for 18.8% of global methane emissions (1.7 billion tons) and 18.4% of nitrous oxide emissions (545 million tons), more than India, France, Germany and Russia combined.
Methane is mainly produced by transporting and distributing energy sources, raising livestock, and managing wastewater and landfills. In 2016, 42.9% of China’s methane emissions came from its energy sector, such as coal mining and the transportation of gases. While China did create new regulations in 2010 to curb methane emissions from coal mines, a 2019 study found that China’s total methane emissions continued to increase from 2010 to 2015.
38.2% of China’s methane emissions also come from agricultural activities, most notably as a byproduct of rice cultivation, which made up 55% of its agricultural methane emissions in 2016. This is not uncommon, as rice cultivation is also responsible for 62% of methane emissions in Japan, although it does differ between countries. For example in the US, 34.9% of methane emissions come from agriculture, predominantly livestock, while energy-related industries were responsible for 43.7%.
The agricultural and energy sectors are also the primary sources of nitrous oxide emissions in China, mainly caused by agricultural soil management, such as fertiliser use, and other industrial activities. Investing in regenerative agricultural practises, therefore, could provide a lot of preventative solutions for further emissions, plus drawdown options for CO2.
Progress in China
As part of the Paris Agreement, China pledged to reduce its emissions intensity by 60-65% by 2030. For context, unlike an absolute cut to emissions, emissions intensity refers to the amount of carbon released per dollar of economic activity. Therefore total emissions could climb if economic growth outpaces emissions, as has happened in many OECD countries. Emissions intensity, therefore, isn’t a perfect way of measuring progress, especially if it is used as a way of greenwashing information and continuing to burn fossil fuels. However, if it is part of a larger decarbonisation strategy that phases out fossil fuels in the next decade, it doesn’t have to be terrible either.
There is every chance that this is the case for China. While they still have a long way to go and a lot more they could do, studies do suggest that China is moving in the right direction in regards to its Paris Agreement commitments. Additionally, it is already the largest producer of solar panels, and is pursuing markets in advanced electricity grid equipment, batteries and electric cars. When we consider its global influence and contributions to emissions, these could all be seen as positive steps.
In the last ten years, China has made efforts to position itself as a global leader on climate action, focusing on renewable energy, energy efficiency and economic policies. According to Kelly Sims Gallagher’s work in “Titans of the Climate,” China has implemented more than 100 policies related to lowering its energy use and emissions. In July of 2019 China also issued a joint statement with France intending to increase their climate targets. This was seen as an important step towards more ambitious action, especially in comparison to the US withdrawal from the Paris agreement.
Curbing coal consumption
Air pollution has been a major problem in China since 2000, with Beijing and Shanghai’s smog problems becoming notorious and a 2015 report estimating that air pollution is a major factor in 1.6 million deaths in China each year. After severe smog in 2011, China initiated a massive national action plan to curb coal and improve air quality.
China introduced a plan in 2018 that requires 480 million tons of carbon capacity from steel production to meet “ultra-low emission” standards by 2020, whilst also exploring introduction of carbon capture and storage, increasing natural gas usage which emits 50-60% less carbon during the combustion process, and upgrading its power grid with efficient plants, which produce more energy with less coal.
Overall, this raises standards well past the USA.
If current U.S. regulatory trends continue, by 2020, every coal plant operating in the United States would be illegal to operate in China.
According to research in 2019, China is set to be on track to meet the ultra-low emissions (ULE) goals it introduced in 2014 for 2020. These aimed to reduce emissions by 40-45% from 2005 levels.
The research found that from 2014 – 2017 polluting chemicals from thermal power plants combusting coal, oil, natural gas and biomass (with a focus on coal plants) dropped dramatically. In this time period emissions of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter fell by 65, 60 and 72% respectively. If all thermal power plants meet ULE standards by 2020, these emissions will fall further.
China introduced three primary policies for CPPs [coal power plants] during 2005-2020. They aimed to improve efficiency energy by promoting large CPPs and decommissioning small plants during 2005-2020; brought in national emission cap requirements by installing of end-of-pipe control devices during 2005-2015; and introduced ultra-low emission standards between 2014-2020.
… Dr Fei Liu, from the Universities Space Research Association, Goddard Earth Sciences Technology and Research, USA, is the study’s corresponding author. She said: “Our results show that overall, China’s efforts on emission reductions, air quality improvement and human health protection from CPPS between 2005-2020 were effective.
China has also pledged more than $1 trillion in air, water, and soil cleanup plans, created a feed-in-tariff policy for renewable energy generators, introduced energy efficiency standards for power plants, motor vehicles, buildings and equipment as well as targets for energy production from non-fossil sources and mandated caps on coal consumption. It has also added more renewables to its grid, pledging to install “340 gigawatts (GW) of hydropower capacity, 210 GW of wind and 110 GW of solar by 2020.”, meaning it is expected to surpass the 15% target set in the Copenhagen accord.
In 2017 China also launched a national emissions trading system, which incentivises companies to cut emissions by putting a price on CO2. Around 38 million tons of CO2 have been traded in regional carbon markets since its launch.
It is also very important to examine the links between urbanisation in China and emissions when it comes to future predictions. 50 cities in China account for about 35% of the country’s total emissions and 51% of its GDP. While researchers know that emissions and GDP are closely linked, they also found that emissions for most cities peak, and then begin to decline, when GDP reaches around $21,000 per person. Using data on future population size and economic development from the world bank, researchers believe that China’s total emissions could peak well ahead of the 2030 commitment made at the Paris Agreement. Carbon Brief’s 2015 analysis suggested that CO2 could peak in 2027, a 2016 analysis from the London School of Economics suggested emissions would peak before 2025, and government research in 2019 suggested emissions could peak by 2022.
China’s approach has to be different for each urban area: older cities such as Beijing and Hangzhou have to focus on retrofitting infrastructure to improve energy efficiency, while newer cities such as Xiong’an have opportunities to avoid carbon-intensive elements of early urbanisation completely. Moving forward, it will become vital that China avoids ‘carbon leakage’, where power is imported from other areas or heavy industry shifted out of cities, as this just relocates emissions. If China puts policy in place to discourage this while continuing to support renewable energy resources, this can be avoided.
This is also where Western countries must take responsibility. As industry and supply chains are so often found in China, it is our responsibility to consume less, reducing demands for materials and products that are currently contributing to China’s emissions, whilst really being the fault of globalised mass consumption.
Overall, while China is often demonised by others, it seems more on track to meet the commitments it made under the Paris Agreement than countries like the US, who withdrew altogether and have instead seen a rise in emissions.
How China can do better
There are, of course, also ways that China can improve upon its efforts.
One essential part of this is reforming the electric power sector.
Traditionally, electricity pricing schemes in China were determined by the National Development and Reform Commission, which leads the country’s macroeconomic planning. They favored existing power producers, particularly coal plants, not the cleanest or most efficient sources.
China committed to electric power reform, including emission reductions and greater use of renewables, in 2015. Converting to a process under which grid managers buy electricity from generators starting with the lowest-cost sources should facilitate installation and use of renewables, since renewable electricity has almost zero marginal costs. Meanwhile, renewable energy projects across China, especially solar, have become cheaper than grid electricity.
While China has invested in renewables, it has also continued to build coal plants. Reforming the power sector will hopefully help this trend to decrease.
However, this will be a difficult process. Owners of existing coal plants are resistant to these changes, while the U.S.-China trade war is slowing China’s economic growth and raising concerns about employment, which could interfere with the reform process. It has been suggested that China should introduce a cap on new coal infrastructure built after 2020 to keep its commitments on track.
The emissions trading system that China put in place has also, so far, not had as large an impact as it could. This is because the initial price on CO2 emissions is low. However, analysis suggests that this system can have strong long-term impacts if it can sustain higher prices. If China reduces its cap on total CO2 emissions after 2025, which will increase the price of emissions allowances, this policy could become a major cause of emission reductions in the power sector.
Additionally, energy efficiency standards, especially for coal plants, factories and vehicles, will need to be continuously updated to continue progress and avoid complacency as fossil fuels are continually phased out.
Another important factor is that, while China has introduced many climate policies, they mainly only target CO2 emissions. China needs to also combat emissions like methane and nitrous oxide as well as end contributions to emissions outside of its borders by exporting coal equipment and directly financing overseas coal plants. That being said, no other country currently reports emissions generated abroad either, so the solutions to both of these issues need to be adopted by all countries. The entire international community needs to stop funding fossil fuel projects, and shift to regenerative agriculture and rewilding to tackle other forms of emissions.
Supply chain emissions
The choices China makes over the next decade will undoubtedly be crucial to the global fight against climate breakdown. China is in a powerful position to change the course of emissions around the world; in most industrial sectors 75% of emissions are produced in supply chains, many of which are located in China at some point. This is also key to why we can’t blame China without acknowledging the globalised nature of the world we live in today. Countries have to recognise their inherent ties and work together to lower emissions, there’s no way to compartmentalise the way many emissions are produced outside of internal energy production.
Research conducted by the Carbon Trust found that China is the world’s largest emitter in the apparel sector, but 72% of those emissions are essentially the responsibility of companies overseas where the products are exported and sold, proving once again that we cannot just simply blame China for all emissions.
In 2018, we at the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) examined the climate actions of 118 IT and textile-industry brands sourcing from China to rank them by how green their supply-chain practices are. Apple and Nike tied for first place, and Chinese brands Lenovo and Huawei reached the top 30, but most brands did not take supply-chain carbon footprints into consideration. Barely any set supply-chain emission-reduction targets. Consequently, most of the top global brands may not be able to meet their climate commitments.
That being said, China has expanded environmental transparency. This carbon data can help businesses set targets and help the public understand who is using best practices, but it must be up to all countries and businesses to take responsibility for the pollution they create.
Basically, stop pointing fingers at China
Overall, pointing at China’s emissions as an excuse to avoid dealing with the messes of our own countries doesn’t seem particularly smart to me. While China’s energy use and carbon emissions rose rapidly as it invested in factories and infrastructure, it’s also important to remember that China only became the top contributor to global warming in 2015 as it became a more developed country, and it is still nowhere near the highest polluter per capita.
Additionally, no one country can reduce emissions enough to stop climate breakdown. While China’s efforts are important, so are the efforts of other countries and companies too.
No one country can stabilize the global temperature just by stabilizing its emissions.
That makes the question of whether China needs to make a move before the U.S. does “ill-posed,” he says. Research backs the idea that all countries need to work together to reduce emissions, regardless of who goes first—or who contributed what to the problem and when…
The idea that the U.S. should wait because other countries like China need to make more reductions than we do is “rhetoric that works perfectly for the status quo”
In many ways China’s climate action is stronger than the US, despite having developed far more recently as a country.
Yes, there is more that China can and should be doing. But, as public opinion shifts and climate continues to dominate global conversation, I wouldn’t rule out the idea that they will continue to do more. Even if not concerned with public opinion, the market value of investing heavily in clean energy can push them that way anyway. As such a large country with such a wide use of coal, China can’t immediately close all coal plants, but they can make them less polluting while they phase them out over time.
As for China, “the idea they’re not doing anything is not true,” says Monier. China is actually well-positioned to work on this issue because citizens care deeply about a closely related issue: air pollution…
Powered by the need to address air pollution, China is “essentially moving forward faster than anyone else,” Barrington-Leigh says. With that comes green energy innovation, something that House subcomittee members on both sides of the aisle said should be a priority for the United States. In China, that innovation, and air pollution reduction, are being driven by the totalitarian government, which has control over many of the energy enterprises.
In the United States, getting innovation on green energy mostly lies with the market—a system that doesn’t work in the absence of strong leadership
So, all in all, I’d say keep protesting. Keep demanding politicians do better. Keep asking for system change. Pinning the blame on China for something that is a global problem driven by colonialism and exploitation is a waste of time. And any politician that wants to wait around for China to fix the problem has chosen a poor excuse.