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Saturday 2 December 2023 Dublin: 2°C
Alamy Stock Photo In 2021, China emitted 14.30 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.

Explainer: China, the world's largest greenhouse gas emitter

Questions and Answers about China’s emissions and climate plans.

THE WORLD’S LARGEST emitter of greenhouse gases, China, and its approach to carbon neutrality is under the microscope this year at COP28 as it’s often seen as make-or-break for the planet’s future.

At the event in Dubai this year, the Irish delegation is set to push for fossil fuel companies to ‘pay their way’ as countries look to strike deals to ramp up climate action and avoid catastrophic temperature rise.

This year’s COP, which begins tomorrow, comes against a backdrop of an overwhelming amount of evidence detailing the scale of the climate crisis. 

The scale of recent changes to the climate is “unprecedented” over hundreds and thousands of years, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

It has found that if global average temperatures rise by 1.5 degrees – a threshold it is widely expected will be surpassed – the world “faces unavoidable multiple climate hazards” in the next 20 years.

So how much does China emit? Where do they come from? And how are they trying to tackle it?

How much does China emit?

In 2021, China emitted 14.30 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent – a measure of all greenhouse gases – according to Climate Watch, citing data from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

That makes it by far the largest emitter globally now, though when historical emissions are factored in, it falls behind the United States.

There is “no plausible path” to keeping warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels – the goal set at the 2015 Paris climate summit – without China, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Where do the emissions come from?

Coal is the largest contributor to China’s carbon dioxide emissions, thanks to its outsize role in power generation.

Nearly half China’s carbon dioxide emissions come from the power sector, and around 60 percent of the country’s electricity generation is still dependent on coal, according to the IEA.

Industry accounts for another 36 percent of carbon emissions, with transport contributing eight percent and construction five percent.

China is adding renewable energy, particularly solar capacity, at a record rate.

It is currently on target to install 230 gigawatts (GW) of wind and solar this year, more than double the installations in the United States and Europe combined, according to consultancy Woods Mackenzie.

So far, the additional capacity is largely meeting growing demand.

The increased capacity, including in hydropower, is expected to see China’s carbon emissions fall in 2024, according to research commissioned by Carbon Brief this year.

What are China’s climate targets?

In 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged the country would aim for carbon emissions to peak before 2030, with carbon neutrality achieved by 2060.

The following year, Xi committed to halting the financing and construction of new overseas coal plants and introduced a new five-year plan with key carbon and energy targets.

China committed to bring down carbon emissions per unit of GDP by over 65 percent from 2005 and set a new target for installed capacity of wind and solar power of over 1,200 gigawatts by 2030.

As of 2021, it had already achieved 1,056 GW of installed capacity, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency, dwarfing second-place United States, with just 345 GW.

China also released a broad plan in November to control its methane emissions, though it offered no specific target.

It has not yet signed a global pledge backed by the United States and European Union to slash the gas, which has a shorter lifespan than carbon dioxide but is more potent.

Is China on track?

Experts say China is on track to meet its climate commitments, and the breakneck pace of its renewables installation could see its emissions peak before 2030, with carbon neutrality potentially achieved ahead of its 2060 goal.

A survey of 89 experts carried out by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air found 70 percent believe China will reach peak carbon emissions before 2030.

The United Nations Environment Programme said in November that China is “likely” to meet the commitments it has made, citing rapid implementation by the government.

It noted over half of all installed electricity generation capacity is now from non-fossil fuel sources, ahead of a 2025 target, and that share is forecast to continue growing.

However, energy demand also continues to increase, and energy security concerns have helped drive continued expansion and even overcapacity of coal-fired power, UNEP said.

Experts have warned that while China is installing renewable capacity at a pace that far outstrips the rest of the world, the expansion of coal threatens progress.

Despite pledges by Xi to limit new coal, China has been resistant to language that would promote a phasedown or phaseout of the fossil fuel — an issue likely to be a key negotiating point at COP28 climate talks.

-© AFP 2023Includes reporting by Lauren Boland

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