Report: China's 2019 greenhouse gas emissions exceeded all other industrialized nations combined

When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, China is No. 1, and it’s not even close.

A report released last week by the Rhodium Group finds that China’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 were higher than those of every other nation in the developed world combined.

China accounted for 27 percent of global emissions, the report stated, while the United States, the second-worst emitter of greenhouse gases, was responsible for 11 percent of the global total. India was responsible for 6.6 percent, while the 27 nations making up the European Union accounted for 6.4 percent.

“Using our newly updated global emissions data through 2019, we estimate that in 2019, for the first time since national greenhouse gas emissions have been measured, China’s annual emissions exceeded those of all developed countries combined,” the report states. “China’s emissions were less than a quarter of developed country emissions in 1990, but over the past three decades have more than tripled, reaching over 14 gigatons of CO2-equivalent in 2019.”

Though China's overall emissions have soared, however, the U.S. continues to be the world's leader in emissions per capita. The report also notes that the climate crisis did not arise overnight, and that while China's emissions have overtaken those of the rest of the world's industrialized nations, other countries share considerable blame for rising global temperatures.

“While China exceeded all developed countries combined in terms of annual emissions and came very close to matching per capita emissions in 2019, China’s history as a major emitter is relatively short compared to developed countries, many of which had more than a century head start,” the report states. “A large share of the CO2 emitted into the atmosphere each year hangs around for hundreds of years. As a result, current global warming is the result of emissions from both the recent and more distant past.”

Once emitted in the form of exhaust or pollution, carbon atoms, for instance, can remain in the atmosphere for 300 to 1,000 years, NASA says on its website. For that reason, cutting greenhouse gas emissions at once is an urgent priority.

Earth model
The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in 2009. (Xinhua/Wu Wei via Getty Images)

In April, President Biden hosted a climate summit of world leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping. Biden announced an ambitious goal for the U.S. to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 52 percent by 2030.

“This is the decisive decade,” Biden said at the summit. “This is the decade that we must make decisions to avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis.”

Ahead of the summit, China had committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2060, and Xi did not update his targets.

The recent pledges made by world governments to limit carbon emissions will not be sufficient to meet the goal of keeping global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius, according to a report released earlier this month by the Climate Action Tracker.

While China's pledge on carbon neutrality is in line with other nations, it leaves out greenhouse gas emissions from other sources such as methane, which is roughly 28 times more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide in the short term. Whether China can meet its goal of carbon neutrality is also an open question given that it currently relies on 1,058 coal plants for energy, more than half the total global capacity, the BBC reported.

The vast majority of climate scientists have warned that in order to prevent the worst consequences of climate change from occurring, global temperatures need to be kept from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius. In its landmark 2018 report, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change acknowledged that achieving that goal would require a herculean effort.

“There is no single answer to the question of whether it is feasible to limit warming to 1.5°C and adapt to the consequences,” the report stated.

For China, adapting to climate change’s consequences means, among other things, a marked rise in the number and severity of dust storms in the northern part of the country, a decrease in rainfall in the east, more powerful tropical cyclones making landfall, and the melting of its glaciers, according to a report from the Wilson Center.

Of course, the negative impacts of climate change do not adhere to borders, a fact that makes a concerted global effort to curb rising temperatures that much more important.


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