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China must reduce greenhouse gas emissions at least as much as US emissions


As the Biden administration ramps up US efforts to tackle climate change, comparisons with other countries are often brought up, especially with China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Its energy-related emissions are almost double that of the United States. Otherwise, new data reports that China’s emissions jumped 15% in the first quarter of this year compared to last year, as China rebounds from its lockdown from COVID-19.

The China Energy Outlook, compiled by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), reveals that China is taking steps to improve energy efficiency and reduce emissions, but both are likely to continue to rise into the 2020s as the country continues to improve. building frenzy and remains dependent on coal. The Berkeley Lab Outlook also shows that China has done a lot to improve energy efficiency and reduce emissions, but has a lot more to do – an amount equivalent to the total of current U.S. emissions is at stake.

Energy and emissions trends

As part of China’s 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020), China has set targets for 2020 to reduce energy intensity and CO2 emissions intensity by 15% and 18%, respectively, and derive about 15% of total primary energy from non-fossil sources.

Despite its growing emissions, Berkeley Lab finds that China appears to be on track to meet these key goals due to several factors: energy efficiency; growth in the share of the service sector in the Chinese economy; growth of renewable, nuclear and natural gas energies; and a slightly lower share of energy consumption from coal. (The use of coal continues to grow but more slowly than in the boom years of the past).


The Outlook presents 42 Chinese policies focused on reducing energy and associated emissions. Here are some notable examples:

  • Appliance and Equipment Standards: China has mandatory efficiency standards for 73 product categories, compared to over 60 in the United States.
  • Light and Heavy Vehicle Fuel Economy Standards: The current Chinese standard for passenger vehicles (around 35 miles per gallon in 2020) is more stringent than the US standard (around 31 mpg in 2020) (see here).
  • Electric Vehicle Incentives: China’s New Energy Vehicle Program promotes electric and fuel cell vehicles with incentives, extensive charging infrastructure, and other measures. Preliminary data shows that 1.34 million electric vehicles were sold in China in 2020, compared to 0.33 million in the United States; China has also made major progress in the electrification of buses.
  • Local government carbon targets: Under its Low Carbon Pilot Cities and Provinces program, 83 cities and provinces have set targets for when CO2 emissions will peak. They carry out energy and GHG emissions inventories, prepare action plans and establish local standards and incentives.

Many of China’s policies are similar to the policies of the United States and other countries, which have provided lessons for Chinese policymakers. Likewise, American policymakers can learn from some aspects of Chinese policies.

China’s energy future and emissions

Many studies project China’s energy consumption and emissions to 2050 under various scenarios, as shown in the figure below. Most of the scenarios published in the past two years show a peak in emissions by 2030, but some show emission levels until 2050 while others show a decline. In its continuous improvement scenario, Berkeley Lab shows that emissions could decrease significantly by 2050 if China adopts the maximum share of commercially available and profitable energy efficiency and renewable energy supply by 2050.

The difference between the emissions levels from 2030 to 2050 and the Berkeley Lab’s continuous improvement scenario is of the same order of magnitude as the current US emissions, which shows the importance for China to adopt this reduction path. shows. The Berkeley Lab and several other scenarios are illustrated in the figure below.

China has an impressive track record of energy and emissions policies that put it on track to peak emissions by 2030, but it clearly needs to do a lot more – and quickly. As the world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases, China has a particular obligation to reduce its emissions given their very significant impact on the global environment. The same can be said of the United States; the two countries together account for over 40 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

In September, Chinese President Xi Jinpeng pledged that China would peak in total CO2 emissions by 2030 and become carbon neutral by 2060. This commitment goes even beyond the Berkeley Lab scenario.

The Berkeley Lab China Energy Outlook shows a way forward for China to look to improve energy efficiency and use renewables to significantly reduce emissions, but even more effort will be needed to meet China’s new targets. Berkeley Lab is exploring deep decarbonization pathways for China to reach its new target. China should follow such a path, and the United States should help while embarking on a similar path. The ACEEE will continue to monitor energy policies in China, the United States and other countries in a new edition of our International Energy Efficiency Scoreboard, which will be released next year.