China’s greenhouse gas emissions exceed total of US and developed countries, report finds

The superpower more than tripled its emissions levels from 1990

Louise Boyle
Senior Climate Correspondent, New York
Friday 07 May 2021 00:06 BST

Related: Biden speaks on competition with China during address to Congress

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China’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 exceeded the combined total of all developed countries, a think tank report published on Thursday revealed.

The new research from Rhodium Group found that in that year, the superpower produced carbon emissions that were more than triple its 1990 levels, and had increased by 25 per cent that decade.

China’s share of the 2019 global emissions total of 52 gigatons rose to 27 per cent.

This meant that the country not only stretched past the US in terms of planet-heating pollution – the world’s second largest emitter accounted for 11 per cent of global emissions that year – but also “for the first time, surpassed the emissions of all developed countries combined”, the report states.

Greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 for the world’s largest emitters

The report refers to the emissions from all members of the intergovernmental economic organisation, the OECD, along with 27 EU member states.

The findings also noted that for the first time that India came in ahead of the EU as the world’s third largest emitter, accounting for 6.6 per cent of global emissions over the bloc’s 6.4 per cent.

However, Rhodium researchers note that because of China's large population of 1.4 billion people, its per capita emissions remain lower than those in the developed world.

In 2019, China’s emissions reached 10.1 tons for each person, tripling over 20 years. However, this is less than per capita levels across OECD nations (at 10.5 tons) and well below Americans’ at 17.6 tons.

Final data for 2020 is not yet available but the think tank projects that China’s per capita emissions would outstrip OECD average as the country’s net emissions grew 1.7 per cent last year while pollution dropped in almost every other nation due to the pandemic.

While greenhouse gas pollution in China is booming, largely due to its proliferation of coal plants, historically it has been a low emitter compared to developed nations whose industrialised economies began driving the climate crisis from the mid-18th century.

"A large share of the CO2 emitted into the atmosphere each year hangs around for hundreds of years," Rhodium noted. “As a result, current global warming is the result of emissions from both the recent and more distant past.”

Since 1750 developed countries have emitted four times the carbon emissions, on a cumulative basis, compared to China, according to the report.

However, Rhodium cautions that this figure too over-emphasises the role of those emissions in the 1.1C of global heating that has taken place since pre-industrial times. A large amount of emissions are absorbed in the earth’s carbon cycle as the decades pass. “But China still has a way to go before surpassing the OECD on a cumulative contribution basis,” the report adds.

President Joe Biden announced the US’s updated climate goal ahead of the White House’s Leaders’ Summit last month, pledging to cut carbon emissions as much as 52 per cent by 2030 compared to 2005 levels.

In his remarks to a Joint Session of Congress a week later, he underlined that the climate crisis was a “global fight”.

“The United States accounts ... less than 15 per cent of carbon emissions,” President Biden said. “The rest of the world accounts for 85 per cent.  That’s why I kept my commitment to rejoin the Paris Accord — because if we do everything perfectly, it’s not going to ultimately matter.”

John Kerry, Mr Biden’s international climate envoy, has said that China is a top priority in US climate negotiations ahead of the consequential UN climate talks, COP26, in Glasgow this November.

But while Mr Kerry was in Shanghai last month, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng made reference to America’s and Europe’s historical emissions in an Associated Press interview.

“China is at a stage different from that of the US and European developed countries – we are still a primary school student, while the US and other developed countries are already in middle school. So, it is against the natural course of development if you ask these two groups of students to graduate at the same time,” he said.

“Developed countries will take 50 to 60 years to move from carbon peak to carbon neutrality, but China has undertaken to do it within 30 years. This is already a big commitment, isn’t it?”

He added that the US should do more to help developing countries upgrade their energy infrastructures. “Lead by example, instead of blaming and scapegoating China,” he added.

At the White House climate summit, President Xi Jinping said that China would work alongside the US but made no new pledge, reiterating his announcement from last year that the superpower aims to reach peak emissions by 2030.

He added that country would “strictly control” coal projects, and limit increases of the fossil fuel over the next five years.

Republicans have criticised the Biden administration’s climate pledges. In a tweet, Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell said: “This administration’s zeal for costly climate policy at home is not matched by our biggest competitors. China’s share of emissions is nearly double ours. The Paris Agreement is largely toothless. Democrats can kill US jobs and industries with no real impact on global emissions.”

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