Rising Chinese GHG Emissions

Posted: May 27, 2021


For the first time since national greenhouse gas emissions have been measured, China’s annual emissions in 2019 exceeded those of all developed countries combined. While their per-capita demand is still lower than the average of other OECD countries, China has been trending in the wrong direction in terms of emissions growth. With GHG emissions continuing to grow while the rest of the world commits to reductions, China appears to be focused on its own economic recovery over meeting global climate goals. 

Key Points

  • According to the Rhodium Group, which provides greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions estimates and modeling, China has more than tripled emissions since 1990 and had more emissions in 2019 than all other developed countries combined.

  • Of the six Kyoto gases identified for greenhouse gas emissions, China was estimated to constitute 27% of net GHG emissions in 2019. By comparison, the U.S. is estimated to have released 11%, India comprised 6.6%, and the 27 nations of the EU combined composed 6.4% over the same period. 

  • The Climate Action Tracker, an independent group tracking government climate action, identified China’s climate change pledges as “highly inefficient.” Currently, China has pledged to reach peak emissions before 2030 and become carbon neutral before 2060, but the country has not released any policies directed at meeting those goals yet.

  • The country has increased greenhouse gas emissions by 25% in the last decade, reaching 14,093 million metric tons of CO2-equivalent in 2019. While much of the world has made pledges to reduce emissions related to coal-generated electricity, China is now capable of creating half of the globe’s coal electricity capacity.

  • Chinese officials have emphasized that economic growth following the pandemic is largely dependent on coal power and resuming industrial development. The country has 1,058 coal plants and is still increasing the construction of coal-fired plants. By the middle of 2020, China had increased total coal capacity to 250 GW and brought 10 GW of new plants online, while simultaneously permitting more new plants than 2018 and 2019 combined.

  • The industrial processes and demand for steel is another sector influencing China’s emissions rate. In 2018, the iron and steel sector made up 13% of the nation’s total energy use. As heavy industrial sectors constitute 40% of total energy demand in the country, reducing its growth and an additional focus on clean power will be needed to meet the 2030 peak emission goal.

  • Although China has increased emissions dramatically in recent years, the country does have 1.4 billion people which results in lower emissions per capita. In 2019 China’s emissions were 10.1 tons/capita, less than the developed country average of 10.5 tons/capita and far below the U.S. emissions of 17.6 tons/capita.

  • China has also not been a net emitter of greenhouse gases for nearly as long as other developed nations, some of which have utilized coal power for more than a century. Since 1750 the group of OECD nations have emitted four times more cumulative CO2 than China.

  • The U.S. has made a recent push to create global buy-in for climate change policy. While many nations have promised goals for meeting emissions targets by 2030-2060, China appears to be more focused on its economic recovery. It is likely the nation will need to make adjustments to its energy and industrial processes to reach the goals of peak emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2060. Unless these changes occur, Biden’s global climate policy will face difficulties as the world’s leading emitter of gas continues to grow its carbon footprint.


The Global ESG Movement has made headline news in recent months with countries like the United States putting climate change at the center of their foreign policy. But climate change is a global fight and according to research published by the Rhodium Group, one developed nation is dragging down the rest with their emission levels. Each year, Rhodium Group provides the most up-to-date global and country-level greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions estimates through their in-house modeling tool, ClimateDeck. Utilizing global emissions data through 2019, Rhodium Group estimates that in 2019, for the first time since national greenhouse gas emissions have been measured, China’s annual emissions exceeded those of all developed countries combined. China’s emissions were less than a quarter of developed country emissions in 1990, but over the past three decades have more than tripled, reaching over 14 gigatons of CO2-equivalent in 2019 [1]. 

Emission Levels

Based on newly updated estimates for 2019, global emissions from all six Kyoto gases, inclusive of land-use, forests, and international bunkers, reached 52 gigatons of CO2-equivalent, an 11.4% increase over the past decade [1]. The Kyoto basket for greenhouse gasses consist of carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2), sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), hydrofluorocarbons, and perfluorocarbons (F-gasses) [7]. There is one country whose emissions stand out from all the others, China. In 2019, Chinese GHG emissions exceeded those of the U.S. and the developed world combined, constituting more than 27% of global emissions [1]. The U.S., the world’s second-highest emitter, accounts for 11% of the global total while India is responsible for 6.6% of global emissions, edging out the 27 nations in the EU, who combined account for 6.4% [1].

Figure 1: 2019 Net GHG Emissions from the World’s Largest Emitters [3]

According to the Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific analysis that tracks government climate action, China’s NDC rating based on their national climate plan highlighting climate action is “highly insufficient” and “are not at all consistent with holding warming to below 2C”[2]. Although President Xi Jinping announced in September 2020 that China will strengthen its 2030 climate target (NDC) to reach peak emissions before 2030 and aim to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060, their plan lacks the policies and direction to set China on a low-carbon trajectory. The main issue, one many countries are also battling, is economic recovery from the global pandemic. China’s COVID-19 response contains elements of a green recovery, showing an improved strategic deviation from the post-2008 financial crisis, but recovery activities remain carbon-intensive and require high energy demand from a system run primarily on fossil fuels [3]. The Chinese Government has issued broader stimulus packages with a focus on transitioning industry and the labor force towards a modernized digital economy rather than restarting traditional infrastructure and remains committed to accelerating renewable energy systems and electric vehicles [3]. While these steps are all in line with desired U.S. climate policy, it is not the direction China had been moving in in recent years.

Emission Growth

In 2019, China’s GHG emissions passed the 14 gigaton threshold for the first time, reaching 14,093 million metric tons of CO2-equivalent (MMt CO2e) [2]. This more than triples 1990 levels, is a 25% increase over the past decade, and resulted in China’s share of the 2019 global emissions rising a jaw-dropping 27% [1]. In the last few years, there had been hopeful signs that China’s CO2 emissions were flattening. However, CO2 emissions rose in both 2018 and 2019, and experts estimate 2020 GHG emissions will increase an additional 0.8% compared to 2019 levels, regardless of expected GHG reductions due to the pandemic [4].

Figure 2: Global Carbon Emission Growth Since 1959 [5]

In an effort to bring global support to the fight against climate change, President Biden named John Kerry the administration’s climate envoy. Despite diplomatic tensions between the two countries on a range of other issues, he traveled to China last month to meet with counterparts and discuss how to work together to combat climate change. In a joint statement, the two sides committed to working with each other and other countries on tackling climate change including specific actions for emissions [4]. The problem is China remains committed to supporting the coal industry while the rest of the world experiences a decline, and is now home to half of the world’s coal-generated electricity capacity. 

The Coal Dilemma

Although China has vowed to reach net-zero emissions by 2060 with an emissions peak no later than 2030, the country’s coal activities remain a large concern due to their inconsistencies with the Paris Agreement. China’s President Xi Jinping reiterated his pledge to the fight against climate change during President Joe Biden’s virtual Earth Day Summit, but Chinese officials have also emphasized that economic growth is still largely dependent on coal power and remains a priority. The country is currently running 1,058 coal plants, more than half the world’s capacity, and is still increasing the construction of coal-fired power plants [2]. China would need to phase out coal before 2040 under the 1.5˚C Paris targets, but it appears to be going in the opposite direction. After lifting a previous construction ban on new coal plants in 2018, China has rolled back policies restricting new coal plant permitting in each of the last three years [3]. By mid-2020 China had permitted more new coal plant capacity than in 2018 and 2019 combined, increased its total coal capacity in the pipeline to 250 GW, and brought 10 GW of new plants online [2]. China is going against the global shift from coal by possessing roughly half of the world’s coal power capacity as well as coal-fired power plants in development.

Another industrial concern in China is the current ravenous demand for steel which happens to be the nation’s top energy-consuming industry. The iron and steel sector is far and away the largest industrial energy machine in China, accounting for 13% of the nation’s total energy use in 2018 [6]. With coal still clocking in at 57% of total energy supply in 2020, it is difficult to see how China can achieve peak emissions in 2030 without both enormous investments in clean power and dramatically curbing growth in the housing-related heavy industrial sectors that account for close to 40% of total energy demand [6]. Luckily, success may be brewing with China’s stimulus plan to bring their economy out of the pandemic era and shift towards a green economy.  

Taken With a Grain of Salt

China’s share of global emissions and their growth over the past few decades is certainly concerning, but it must be taken with a grain of salt. The country is home to over 1.4 billion people which means because of their massive size the per capita emissions have remained considerably lower than those in other parts of the developed world. In 2019, China’s per capita emissions reached 10.1 tons, nearly tripling over the past two decades, but comes in just below average levels across all other developed countries at 10.5 tons/capita [1]. It is also significantly lower than the United States, which has the highest per capita emissions in the world at 17.6 tons/capita [1]. Final global data for 2020 is not yet available, but analysts predict China’s per capita emissions will exceed the OECD average since China’s net GHG emissions grew around 1.7% while emissions from almost all other nations declined sharply in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic [1]. While China certainly exceeded all developed countries combined in terms of annual emissions, its history as a major emitter is relatively short compared to other developed peers, many of which had more than a century’s head start. A large share of the CO2 emitted into the atmosphere each year hangs around for hundreds of years; as a result, current global warming is the result of emissions from both the recent and more distant past. Since 1750, members of the OECD bloc have emitted four times more CO2 on a cumulative basis than China [2]. Granted, this figure is also misleading as it overstates the relative role of OECD emissions since a large share of annual CO2 emissions is absorbed in the earth’s carbon cycle in the decades following release. Still, China has a ways to go before surpassing the OECD on a cumulative contribution basis, and GHG emission reductions must continue to be tackled on a unified global front for worldwide climate policy to succeed.


President Biden is leading the charge in the pursuit of global climate policy with several goals to be reached in the next decade, the main one being a unified pursuit towards lowering global greenhouse gas emissions to fight the worst outcomes of climate change. One potential roadblock to the world meeting the commitments that have been made in the Paris Climate Agreement are future emissions from the world’s largest GHG emitter, China. Between increased emission levels, additional permits and construction of new coal electricity plants, and continued energy demand for the country’s iron and steel industry, China will likely need to make adjustments to conform to its goal of peak emissions by 2030. Since coal combustion is the single biggest contributor to anthropogenic climate change, responsible for 46% of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide and accounts for 72% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the electricity sector, it is reasonable that the developed world is concerned about the direction of China’s emission heavy economy. It is possible success may be brewing with China’s stimulus plan to bring their economy out of the pandemic era and shift towards a green economy, but even more changes to the country’s infrastructure and industrial growth will be required to meet the goal of carbon neutrality by 2060. With GHG emissions currently higher than all other developed countries combined and continuing to grow, China appears to be focused on its own economic recovery over meeting global climate goals.


[1] https://rhg.com/research/chinas-emissions-surpass-developed-countries/

[2] https://climateactiontracker.org/countries/china/

[3] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-57018837

[4] https://www.cnbc.com/2021/05/06/chinas-greenhouse-gas-emissions-exceed-us-developed-world-report.html

[5] https://www.icos-cp.eu/science-and-impact/global-carbon-budget/2020

[6] https://www.wsj.com/articles/to-cap-emissions-by-2030-china-must-rein-in-steel-11621580817

[7] https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php?title=Glossary:Kyoto_basket

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