ChinaFAQs: China & Climate: An Overview

Talking Points

  • China’s development poses a paradox. Rapid growth has helped make China the world’s leading producer of greenhouse gases (just ahead of the United States). But it is also an emerging, and often overlooked, world leader in improving energy efficiency and producing green electricity.
  • Climate science makes it clear that China must slow the growth of its future greenhouse gas emissions if the world is to limit warming. The Chinese government has adopted ambitious plans to curb emissions, and has already made some progress. But it confronts an array of political, economic and demographic challenges.
  • The United States–and the rest of the world–has an enormous stake in China overcoming those challenges.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions Trends

In the last few years, China has become the world’s leading source of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, and its emissions are growing rapidly. China now produces about one-fifth of annual global carbon dioxide emissions, just ahead of the United States.i China’s per capita emissions, however, are just one-quarter of U.S. levels due to its large population (currently about 1.3 billion)ii and high rate of poverty (roughly one-third of the population earns less than $2 a day)iii. In 2006, for instance, the average American produced 20 metric tons of carbon dioxide; the average Chinese produced just 5 metric tons.iv

Sources of China’s Emissions

The single largest source of China’s emissions is the burning of fossil fuels–-coal, oil and natural gas–-for electricity, heat and transport. Coal is by far China’s most important fossil fuel, and some 80% of its total carbon dioxide emissions from energy sources are related to the use of coal.v The other major sources of China’s greenhouse gas emissions are agriculture (roughly 15%), industrial processes (9%), and waste (2%).vi

Development, Economics and Energy

Senior Chinese leaders have said that climate change poses significant political, economic, diplomatic and energy security risks.vii At the same time, however, there are competing views on how best to reduce those risks while still promoting economic growth, reducing poverty, securing adequate energy supplies, and maintaining social stability. Indeed, China confronts a challenge no other large, emerging economy has ever faced: Sustaining rapid economic growth while at the same time limiting harmful emissions.viii


A central issue in meeting this challenge is how China produces and uses electricity. Currently, about 83% of China’s electricity is produced by burning coal, and coal is expected to become an even more important source of electricity in the near future.ix In 2008, China burned more than double the amount of coal used in the United States, the world’s second largest consumer.x China’s coal consumption is expected to grow as it moves to meet surging demand for electricity from industry and consumers.

Many senior government planners, however, recognize that this approach–simply increasing supply–-is not sustainable in the long run, even if climate change was not an issue. One problem is that China’s coal reserves, although vast, are not inexhaustible. Many of the most accessible deposits could be substantially depleted within this century.xi Another is that the “coal boom” has produced serious pollution, public health and worker-safety problems that have stirred social unrest. Finally, despite the furious pace of construction, electricity demand has continued to outstrip supply in many regions, leading to blackouts that have also helped promote political dissatisfaction.xii

Energy Efficiency

To address these problems China has adopted ambitious plans for slowing the demand for electricity through improving the energy efficiency of major industries and consumer products (see ChinaFAQs: An Intense Push for Energy Efficiency and ChinaFAQs: Efficiency, A Thousand Companies At A Time).

It has also moved aggressively to close hundreds of older, less-efficient and more-polluting power plants, and install advanced technologies–-including technologies for capturing global warming gases–-in new plants (see ChinaFAQs: Taking Steps to Capture Carbon).

Together, these efforts have enabled China to significantly improve its “energy intensity”–the amount of energy consumed per dollar of gross domestic product. In essence, China wants to use less energy to produce more economic growth. Already, this improvement has allowed China to avoid even higher current emissions levels.xiii

Renewable Fuels and Consumer Power Use

China is also pursuing other strategies for creating a “low carbon” future. It is spending heavily to develop climate-friendlier alternatives to coal, including nuclear, hydroelectric, solar and wind power. In the last few years alone, for instance, China has doubled its construction of wind turbines, and now has 10% of the world’s totalxiv (see ChinaFAQs: Wind’s Rising Superpower). And it has set stringent goals for improving auto mileage standards, improving mass transit, and building highly efficient district heating systems (see China FAQs Policy Overview).

Social / Political Pressures

These gains, however, have not prevented China from becoming the world’s leading annual emitter of greenhouse gases. That development has put the Chinese government under increasing pressure-–from both critics within its ranks and from the international community–-to address climate change. Adding to the pressure is the scientific conclusion, shared by many of China’s own climate researchers, that the world cannot eventually limit global temperature increases without significant action by China.xv

The climate issue, however, has also exposed competing forces in China’s sprawling bureaucracy and economy. Some players appear to view addressing climate change as an opportunity for China to gain recognition as a leader in global diplomacy, seize advantage in the development of new green technologies, and improve its long-term energy security. But others fear that the United States and other developed nations are using the issue to slow China’s economic growth, hamper its competitiveness in international trade, and shackle its ability to fully exploit its domestic energy supplies.

Governance Challenges

The climate issue has also highlighted the growing complexity of China’s governance. Although central planners in Beijing are still powerful, they now share influence with increasingly strong local and regional governments. And officials at all levels sometimes face the challenge of shaping policies while using outdated, incomplete or intentionally inaccurate statistical information.

It is clear that China faces real and growing challenges–political, economic, diplomatic and social–-related to climate change. It is also clear that China has made significant, but sometimes overlooked, progress in developing and deploying solutions. The United States and other nations have a significant stake in encouraging China’s continued progress.

Notes and References
i In 2006, total global energy-related CO2 emissions were estimated to be approximately 29.0 billion metric tons. China’s emissions were 6.0 billion metric tons (21%); U.S. emissions were 5.9 billion metric tons (20%). Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration International Energy Annual 2006.
ii China population figure comes from the CIA World Factbook (2009).
iii China’s per capita greenhouse gas emissions in 2005 were 5.5 metric tons; U.S. per capita emissions were 23.5 metric tons. Source: Climate Analysis Indicators Tool (CAIT) v.6.0. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute. China poverty figure comes from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators (2009).
iv EIA. 2008. International Energy Annual 2006. Available online at:
v EIA. 2008. International Energy Annual 2006. Available online at:
vi Climate Analysis Indicators Tool (CAIT) version 6.0. (2009). Washington, DC: World Resources Institute. Available online at:
vii For instance, see: “Chinese President Hu Jintao Attends the Leaders Meeting of Major Economies on Energy Security and Climate Change and Delivers an Important Speech (2008). China Climate Change Info-net. At:
viii For instance, see: Hallding, K. et al. A Balancing Act: China’s Role In Climate Change. Swedish Commission on Sustainable Development. 2009. Available online at:
ix Energy Information Administration, China Country Analysis Brief, July 2009. Available online at:
x In 2008, China’s coal consumption was 1,406 million tones of oil equivalent (mtoe); the United States consumed 565 mtoe. From: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2009.
xi IEA. 2009. Cleaner Coal in China. Paris, France: OECD/IEA. Available online at:
xii Hallding, K. et al. A Balancing Act: China’s Role In Climate Change. Swedish Commission on Sustainable Development. 2009. Available online at:
xiii Levine, M., Zhou, N., and Price, L. (2009), “The Greening of the Middle Kingdom: The Story of Energy Efficiency in China.” Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Report. Available at:
xiv BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2009.
xv Fu Jing (8/18/09). “Emissions to peak at 2030: report.” China Daily. Available at: