Climate Change

Dragon in the room: Why China’s target of carbon neutrality is misleading

China contributed 27% to the world’s overall global emissions in 2019, surpassing the United States

By Avantika Goswami, Anushree Singh
Published: Tuesday 18 May 2021

China is not only the world’s leading greenhouse gas (GHG) polluter — it also contributed 27 per cent to the world’s overall global emissions in 2019, surpassing the United States, according to a recent study.

The United States is the world’s second-largest emitter with an 11 per cent share, according to the study by the Rhodium Group, an independent research provider.

In 2019, China breached the 14 gigatonnes mark of GHG emissions, an increase of almost 11.4 per cent over the previous decade. The share is greater than that of all countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) put together.

In terms of per capita emissions, China’s score was 10.5 tonnes, thrice that of India’s meagre 1.9 tonnes per capita. This is despite both countries having a comparable population.

The per capita emission of China is expected to overtake North America by the end of this decade. In fact, China is the only country that showed a rise in absolute emissions even during the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

China’s domestic energy is still heavily reliant on coal, and with continued investments worth $ 474 million in coal-power projects, the country is still pursuing the construction of coal-fired power plants.

Net GHG emissions from the world’s largest emitters in 2019. Source: Rhodium Group

With a combined coal power output almost three times that of the rest of the world, China added 38.4 GW of dirty coal capacity and approved another 36.9 GW in 2020, according to data. This points to how China’s target of “carbon neutrality before 2060” is misleading and can be viewed as a way to defer real emissions reductions to decades in the future.

Total net greenhouse gas emissions, 1990-2019. 

China’s over-reliance on coal in its draft 14th Five Year plan is a glaring example of its near climate denial documented officially. Earlier in March 2021, a representative of the coal industry attending the national legislative session in Beijing argued in favour of coal under the garb of clean and efficient coal technologies.

In December 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed an updated Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement, but it is yet to be officially submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Its current NDC has been assessed by the Climate Action Tracker to be ‘highly insufficient’ [i.e. supporting a 4°C rise scenario], and not consistent with holding warming below 2°C or 1.5°C.

A study suggests that to achieve the Paris Agreement’s goals, China would need to reduce its demand for coal to nearly zero by 2050, rather than increase it. It will also need to cut its total carbon dioxide emissions and energy consumption by more than 90 per cent and 39 per cent by 2050.

Non-carbon emissions such as methane and nitrous oxide would need to go down by an average of 71 per cent and 52 per cent respectively.

“China’s role in the world is now of a magnitude that makes its actions in the immediate future critical to how the world goes forward,” said Dr Chunping Xie, a policy fellow at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change in an interview with journal Carbon Brief.

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