China, India and other developing nations have long noted that over the past century, the United States and Europe grew their economies while generating massive amounts of greenhouse gases, and that requiring the developing world to clamp down on emissions as they industrialize and bring millions of citizens into the middle class is unfair.
But with the effects of climate change intensifying and pressure growing for countries to do more to hit the targets of the Paris climate accord, the developed world has sought to make China, India and other developing nations a central part of the global push to restrict emissions for the sake of the planet. Those emissions include six key gases, as well as changes resulting from deforestation and land use.
During a climate summit President Biden organized last month featuring dozens of world leaders, Chinese President Xi Jinping said his nation would limit its coal-based emissions so that they peak ahead of the 2030 target it had set earlier. Xi also reiterated a pledge that China would have net-zero emissions by 2060.
“This major strategic decision is made based on our sense of responsibility to build a community with a shared future for mankind and our own need to secure sustainable development,” Xi said at the time. “China has committed to move from carbon peak to carbon neutrality in a much shorter time span than what might take many developed countries, and that requires extraordinarily hard efforts.”
The Biden administration has made a concerted push to work with China on combating climate change, despite diplomatic clashes between the two countries on numerous other issues, including trade disagreements and a crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.
White House climate envoy John F. Kerry traveled to China last month to meet with his counterparts and encourage the kind of partnership that helped make the Paris agreement a reality in 2015. After Kerry’s visit, the United States and China released a statement vowing to work together on climate change “with the seriousness and urgency that it demands.”
Under the Paris accord, nations around the world pledged to limit global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels and possibly limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. So far, the world remains far from the trajectory needed to hit such targets.
“If we can all hold to 1.5 [Celsius], we’re setting a good example for a lot of other countries as they make choices,” Kerry told The Washington Post during a recent visit to India. “Obviously, we would love to see China join in that. China is funding coal in various parts of the world, and we need to address that.”
Meanwhile, China’s emissions reached 14.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalents in 2019, the Rhodium analysis calculated — more than triple 1990 levels and a 25 percent increase over the past decade.
Measuring China’s greenhouse gas emissions on a per capita basis also shows a sharp increase. China is home to more than 1.4 billion people, and its per capita emissions have reached 10.1 tons annually, nearly tripling over the past two decades.
“This comes in just below average levels across the OECD bloc,” the Rhodium report states, referring to the 37 nations that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, “but still significantly lower than the U.S., which has the highest per capita emissions in the world at 17.6 tons/capita.”
Preliminary figures suggest that China’s share of global emissions grew larger over the past year in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. An earlier Rhodium analysis estimated that China’s emissions increased by 1.7 percent in 2020 in the face of the pandemic. That is substantially less than the 3.3 percent growth the nation averaged over the past decade, but still the wrong direction for a world committed to slowing Earth’s warming. Rhodium estimated that China’s emissions were equivalent to those of nearly 180 of the world’s lowest-emitting countries combined.
Although greenhouse gas pollution from China has swelled ever larger, the nation is far from the largest historical emitter. The members of the OECD, the Rhodium study found, have emitted four times more carbon dioxide than China on a cumulative basis since 1750.