Summary/Snapshot: Greenhouse Gas Emissions In China (Past, Present & Future)

Summary/Snapshot: Greenhouse Gas Emissions In China (Past, Present & Future)

At the moment, China and the United States are some of the clear major players when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions.

We’ve put together a brief summary/snapshot of how each country sits in the global picture, and on a national scale.

This is our China GHG Emission Summary.


Summary – Greenhouse Gas Emissions In China

  • The US leads the world in cumulative CO2 emissions throughout history, with China in second
  • The US sits behind China (who leads the world) for annual CO2 emissions. On latest figures, China is around double the US’s annual emissions
  • Because of the size of the population, China’s per capita CO2 emissions sit at around 7.36 tonnes per person, compared to other countries such as the US at 16.44, and Australia at 16.5
  • Coal is the leading emission source in China by a very large margin (coal makes up around 70% of total emissions)
  • 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
  • Power production activities were responsible for 41.8 percent of coal consumption.
  • Construction-related activities are among the main sources of carbon dioxide emissions – particularly the production of cement and steel
  • Over 72 percent of the electrical power generated in China in 2015 came from coal-powered plants
  • Methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and fluorinated gases collectively account for nearly 20 percent of the country’s total emissions
  • Figures show that since the year 2000, China has seen a huge increase in overall greenhouse gas emissions annually, and also coal use
  • China is already the leading investor in renewable energy in the world
  • But, China’s coal installed capacity is not expected to peak before 2025
  • The transition for China from coal to natural gas to renewables still has many hurdles and challenges (despite their installed capacity for renewable energy)
  • In the short term, China still relies heavily on coal power plants
  • In the long term, the effectiveness of China’s reforms (plus many other factors) will determine how well they are able to transition over to renewable and cleaner energy, and this will also determine whether their greenhouse gas emissions begin to decrease (along with how and when)


*Note that future forecasts for what a country may do and their future emissions are a guide only and in reality are very hard to get accurate due to the number of variables at play. Some variables can also have a much larger impact than others – so one variable can change forecasts a lot.


Cumulative C02 Emissions

The countries that lead in terms of total sum of C02 emissions since 1751 and up to 2014, measured in millions of tonnes, are:

  • United States – 376,212.65 (Mt)
  • China – 174,874.89 (Mt)
  • Germany – 86,536.42 (Mt)
  • United Kingdom – 75,237.98 (Mt)
  • India – 41,784.24 (Mt)



Annual C02 Emissions

The countries that lead in terms of total sum of C02 emissions per year in 2016, measured in millions of tonnes, are:

  • China – 10,283.51 (Mt)
  • US – 5,565.49 (Mt)
  • EU-28 – a mix of european countries (Germany features high on the list)
  • India – 2,236.55 (Mt)
  • Russia – 1,669.6 (Mt)
  • Japan – 1266.6 (Mt)



In 2014, the global contribution to C02 emissions was:

  • China – 30%
  • Other – 30%
  • United States – 15%
  • EU-28 – 9%
  • India – 7%
  • Russia – 5%
  • Japan – 4%



Per Capita C02 Emissions

The countries with the highest per capita C02 emissions (C02 emissions per person in the population), measured in tonnes per person per year, in 2016, are:

  • Qatar – 47.83 (tonnes per person per year)
  • Trinidad & Tobago – 30.06
  • Kuwait – 25.81
  • United Arab Emirates – 25.79
  • Bahrain – 24.51
  • Brunei – 23.7
  • Saudi Arabia – 19.66
  • New Caledonia – 18.2
  • Australia – 16.5
  • Luxembourg – 16.47
  • United States –  16.44
  • …Other Countries Between the US and China
  • China – 7.36 



C02 Emissions By Fuel Source

China had 10.2 Gigatonnes of C02 Emissions in 2016. The breakdown by fuel source was:

  • Coal – 7.17Gt C02
  • Oil – 1.38Gt C02
  • Gas – 0.395Gt C02
  • Cement – 1.2Gt C02
  • Gas Flaring – 0Gt C02

Coal has constituted an average of 69.9 percent of China’s energy consumption between 1985 and 2016.

As of 2016, China still consumes more coals that the rest of the world combined.

Roughly 70 percent of China’s CO2 emissions – which is more than those from all European, African, and Latin American countries combined – results from coal consumption. An additional 14 percent of its CO2 emissions come from oil



C02 Emissions By Sector/Industry

  • 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
  • Power production activities were responsible for 41.8 percent of coal consumption.
  • Construction-related activities are among the main sources of carbon dioxide emissions – particularly the production of cement and steel
  • 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
  • Cement production releases 1.25 tons of CO2 per ton of cement created, and cement alone accounted for 11 percent of China’s carbon dioxide emissions in 2016
  • China manufactures half of the world’s steel
  • 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
  • Most of these materials are consumed within China, but in 2017, around 25 percent of the cement and 9 percent of the steel produced in China was exported
  • Motor vehicles represent another major source of emissions in China



Household C02 Emissions

  • Over 72 percent of the electrical power generated in China in 2015 came from coal-powered plants, making coal a primary contributor to household CO2emissions
  • In 2015, urban household CO2 emissions in China predominantly resulted from natural gas (33.2 percent) and liquefied petroleum gas (26.1 percent)
  • In contrast, coal contributes over 65 percent of China’s rural household emissions



Other Greenhouse Gas Emissions

  • Methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and fluorinated gases collectively account for nearly 20 percent of the country’s total emissions
  • 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.
  • China was responsible for 18.5 percent of global methane emissions (1.7 billion tons) and 18.5 percent of N2O emissions (537 million tons) in 2016. 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. An additional 38.2 percent 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
  • Compared to the US, as the world’s largest producer of beef, most of the agricultural methane released in the US comes from livestock instead.
  • Overall, China’s non C02 greenhouse gas breakdown is Agriculture 40.8%, Energy 31.2%, Waste 13.2%, Industrial Processes 12.7%, & Indirect & Other 2%
  • 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.



Current Greenhouse Gas Emissions Trend In China

In the year 2000, China had:

  • 3.4 Giga tonnes of C02 emissions – which was 13.9% of global C02 emissions
  • 2.4 Gt came from coal, 0.649 from oil, 0.0598 from gas, 0.297 from cement, and 0 from gas flaring

In the year 2016, China had:

  • 10.2 Gigatonnes of C02 Emissions – which was 29.2% of global C02 emissions
  • Coal was responsible for 7.17Gt, Oil 1.38Gt, Gas 0.395Gt, Cement 1.2Gt and 0 from Gas Flaring

In the year 2017, China:

  • was responsible for 27.6 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions

China’s reliance on coal for it’s economic development in the recent past is evident here.



Future Forecast For Greenhouse Gas Emissions In China

Precise forecasts for greenhouse gas emissions, and particularly carbon dioxide emissions, are hard to make due to factors such as economic activity, price of fossil fuels, what happens in the electricity and transport industries, government policy developments, whether there are improvements in energy efficiency + more.

So, only estimated forecasts can be made.


There’s really three main things to consider with China’s future forecast for greenhouse gases:

1) China is making efforts to reduce emissions from existing C02 producing activities

2) China is trying to make a transition from coal, to natural gas, and also to renewable/green energy – a huge investment has been made recently by China in this transition

3) There are difficulties, complexities and challenges in making this transition


In more detail…


1) China Making Efforts To Reduce Emissions

  • China has introduced plans for steel production to meet ultra low emissions standards by 2020
  • They are upgrading their power plants to produce more energy with less coal
  • This will put it past the US in that regard
  • It has introduced carbon capture and storage (CCS)
  • In 2017, a nationwide emissions trading scheme (ETS) that incentivizes companies to cut emissions by putting a “price” on CO2. Since its launch, approximately 38 million tons of CO2 have been traded in regional carbon markets.
  • In 2017, to address rural household C02 emissions from coal, electric or gas heaters were subsidised for installation in 3 million homes throughout villages and cities. The use of coal-fired stoves was also banned
  • The Chinese government has proposed fuel standards for new cars, motorcycles and mopeds
  • As of 2017, there were 1.23 million Electric Vehicles in use in China, more than in Europe and the US, at 820,000 and 760,000 respectively
  • The Chinese government aims to have 5 million electric cars on the roads by 2020.



2) China’s Transition From Coal To Natural Gas, & Renewables

  • Natural gas emits 50 to 60 percent less carbon during the combustion process – and China is increasing it’s use of that
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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.”
  • China plans a 16.5 percent annual increase in nuclear power capacity between 2015 and 2020
  • China is expected to surpass the 15 percent target set in the Copenhagen Accord
  • 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 Paris Agreement targets



  • At present, China also leads the world in terms of wind and solar power capacity
  • As of 2017, renewables were generating 5.3% of China’s electricity supply



  • China is already the leading investor in renewable energy in the world, planning to invest another $360 billion by 2020



  • China says it will be the world’s biggest investor in renewables and has pledged $400 billion by 2030.



3) Difficulties, Complexities and Challenges In Making Transition

  • China’s electricity grid runs mainly on coal – this is an issue for electric vehicles
  • 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.



  • Despite declining in relative terms, China’s coal installed capacity is not expected to peak before 2025
  • Despite China’s investment in renewable energy, China still consumes as much coal as the rest of the world combined
  • In 2016, the bulk of Chinese electricity was produced by thermal power plants, mainly coal, which accounted for 65 percent (or 3,906 terawatt hours) of the country’s total power generation
  • The industry still represented 71 percent of energy consumption in 2016, which translated into a structural hurdle to the advancement of reforms in China’s energy mix. Renewable energies, on the other hand, accounted for 25 percent of total power generation, with hydropower at 20 percent, wind power 4 percent, and solar power 1 percent.
  • Forecasts from the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) and the Energy Development Strategy Action Plan (2014-2020) say renewable energies to compose 34 percent of installed generating capacity in China’s power sector.
  • Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that coal will lose its importance: in absolute terms, installed capacity for coal is supposed to increase almost 17 percent, from 942.6 GW in 2016 to 1,100 GW in 2020.
  • The current power system is still influenced by the last 15 years’ development strategies, which – successfully – aimed for security of electricity supply to power the rapidly expanding economy.
  • There is an over capacity of coal power plants – which are essentially stranded investments
  • Because of the huge investment by the Chinese government in renewables, it’s pushed the prices for them down
  • First difficulty (market forces) – But, the profit margin of coal-fire power increased in the last years, due to low prices of coal and to a relatively stable grid purchasing price – this is a market force which helps coal
  • Second difficulty (market forces) – Energy prices in China are probably lower than they should be due to subsidiation and protectionism. Industries are also heavily reliant on coal with the current infrastructure set up and it’s difficult for them to transition to new sources.
  • Third difficulty (market forces) – due to decentralisation of environmental impact assessments of new power plants, relaxation on regulations to prevent new investments in dirty energy has increased
  • Fourth difficulty (market forces) – it has been cheaper in many cases to pay extra fees due to pollution or breaking environmental regulations than to implement energy-efficient solutions
  • Fifth difficulty (tech breakthroughs) – Technology impacts these renewable sources’ efficiency, operation and maintenance costs, and eventually, market prices. Mainly it is the infrastructure to take on new equipment.  Electricity dispatching and absorption for example is an issue because current infrastructure for power transactions doesn’t take into account the variable nature of large scale power generation from wind and solar. Xinjiang, for instance, lost 38 percent of the energy produced by wind power in 2016. Nationally, 17 percent of all wind-power generation was curtailed in 2016 and has been increasing since 2014. Moreover, China’s energy transmission lines still do not support the transference of electricity without losing a considerable amount of energy, whereas industries rely on coal, rather than electricity, to maintain their daily operation. Finally, more technological improvements are urged for cleaner coal production
  • Sixth (social welfare) – any price reform for new energy sources would reduce disposable income. Further to that, closing down existing coal power plants contributes high unemployment through loss of jobs of those who work there, and deteriorating life quality through short term loss of ability to heat homes in winter. Second, governments lose revenue from industrial taxes from decreased use of coal power plants. A relatively rapid green transition, where there is a lack of infrastructure to support the smooth substitution of energy sources alongside an education gap that does not prepare the workforce with skills required in a green economy – has negative effects.
  • Seventh (environmental resilience) – positive outcomes of a green transition are reduced air pollution, rural lands will suffer less from water contamination, and natural landscapes can endure longer. Therefore, of the four main constraints to energy reform in China, environmental resilience poses weaker barriers to the deployment of renewable energies. However, there are two repercussions worth mentioning: geographical suitability and interrelationships among environmental issues. Renewable energies depend on good geographical positioning, where the potential to generate energy outpaces the costs for installation and operation. In China, this translated into a concentration of power plants in specific areas — wind and solar power, for instance, are more advantageous in grasslands and deserts, respectively — that already suffer from soil degradation, erosion, and water scarcity, such as Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. This leads to the second repercussion with respect to the interrelationships between environmental problems. Even though renewable energies have reversible impacts on the environment, their scale of production and installation in a concentrated area aggravates the above-mentioned problems. Consequently, because renewable sources of energy depend on bigger and bigger areas of already degraded lands to scale its production, there is a physical hazard to China’s green transition.
  • Investment in clean energy is still important, but the transition will be slower and more complex, and will take time



  • Some coal fired boiler to gas conversion programs have been put off until 2020 – when additional gas import capacity from Russia will be ready
  • A large-scale transition needs adequate gas distribution capacity
  • Households plus a number of industrial businesses will need to switch from coal to gas for heating and electricity
  • If Beijing doesn’t take care to increase the supply of coal and put a lid on fast-rising prices – there will be more shortages
  • Hebei (where coal use was at 86.6 percent in 2015, versus a national average of 63 percent) has its problems with insufficient gas distribution infrastructure
  • Last year, the local authorities converted more than 2.5 million households to gas and electricity heating from coal
  • Lack of communication between the government and the industry in the transition can also be an issue



  • Nationally, solar only generates about 2 per cent of China’s electricity and wind power a little more than 3 per cent, but much more is planned
  • China says it will be the world’s biggest investor in renewables and has pledged $400 billion by 2030.
  • the problem is much of the electricity is not getting onto the grid. It is being squeezed out by coal, which provides three-quarters of the nation’s energy needs.
  • Coal is cheap, and China is self-sufficient. And that has created a dependency
  • Coal is firmly entrenched and much of China’s business and political elites are making billions from it
  • Some say the coal culture will be a challenge to change, and top decision-makers down do not regard solar as a viable alternative yet
  • A lot of employment, a lot of incomes, a lot of GDP growth is relying on the coal industry. In the provinces the local officials prefer coal
  • Many of the massive showcase renewable projects in the outer provinces are too far away from the energy-hungry cities and industrial centres of the east, and transmission lines and the grid haven’t been upgraded to utilise the power
  • the situation is improving, but 20 per cent of renewable power that is generated is being lost.
  • In western parts large amounts of energy produced by solar and wind is wasted and not integrated into the grid, that brings a lot of losses for the companies operating the renewables
  • The other issue is cost. Renewable energy is still expensive compared to coal
  • it is only a matter of time before technological breakthroughs bring lower prices perhaps in 5 years from 2018
  • Then it will be a low-cost, clean and stable fuel of the future. In the last decade it’s already dropped from $5.00 to 40 cents a watt.
  • How effective energy reforms are, and how fast the coal culture can change – will both affect the transition











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