China overtakes US as main CO2 polluter

Posted: 19 June 2007

For the first time, China's emissions of CO2 have exceeded those of the United States, it was revealed today. According to the latest estimates, China's emissions in 2006 were 8 per cent greater than those of the United States.

During that year, global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use increased by about 2.6 per cent, a significant fall from the 3.3 per cent increase in 2005.

This global increase is mainly due to a 4.5 per cent jump in global coal consumption, of which China contributed more than two-thirds. In 2006, China's use of coal increased by 9 per cent, compared to the global increase in coal combustion of 2 per cent.

Global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use
Global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use
The calculation of China's 2006 emissions includes CO2 emissions from industrial processes. With this, China tops the list of CO2 emitting countries for the first time. In 2005, CO2 emissions of China were still 2 per cent below those of the United States.

These figures are based on a preliminary estimate by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (MNP), using recently published BP (British Petroleum) energy data and cement production data. In the 1990-2006 period global fossil-fuel related CO2 emissions increased over 35 per cent.

Gas and oil

Global CO2 emissions from combustion of natural gas increased 2.5 per cent (creating 130 megatonnes more CO2), mainly due to increasing consumption in Russia and China.

Global CO2 emissions from burning of oil products increased only 0.7 per cent (creating an additional 90 megatonnes of CO2), mainly due to a decrease in consumption in OECD countries by 0.9 per cent on average. While total fossil fuel CO2 emissions of China increased in 2006 by 8.7 per cent, CO2 emissions in the United States decreased in 2006 by 1.4 per cent, according to BP data. Fossil CO2 emissions of the European Union ("EU-15" countries) remained almost constant in 2006, following a decrease of 0.8 per cent in 2005, according to data compiled by the European Energy Agency (EEA).

The EU-15, with a volume of emissions about half of that of China, occupies the third position, followed by Russia, India and Japan.

Cement clinker production is the largest CO2 source among industrial processes, contributing about 4 per cent of global total CO2 emissions from fuel use and industrial activities. However, for China with its large and increasing share in global cement production of about 44 per cent in 2006, its share of CO2 emissions from cement production in the national figure is almost 9 per cent, or some 550 megatonnes out of a total of about 6200 megatonnes of CO2. For the USA these figures are about 5800 megatonnes CO2 in total, of which 50 megatonnnes comes from cement production.

'No excuse for inaction'

Commenting on these findings Tony Juniper, Director of Friends of the Earth,said: "China's rocketing carbon dioxide emissions are a cause for global concern. But this must not be an excuse for inaction in other countries. The UK and the rest of the developed world have a crucial leadership role to play in cutting their pollution and setting an example for developing countries to follow. This is why the UK Government's proposed new law on climate change must be strengthened to ensure that our emissions are cut by at least three per cent every year.

"It must also be remembered that each Chinese citizen is responsible for much less carbon emissions than Europeans. Preaching to them about cutting pollution won't work while western countries are still increasing theirs. Furthermore, China's emissions are linked to the manufacture of products that are being consumed in the west. We need to look at overall levels of consumption worldwide - and not just the impact of individual countries."

In fact, as the Dutch Environmental Assessment Agency reported, China is a long way behind the US in CO2 emissions per capita. While, on average each US citizen is reponsible for 29 tonnes of CO2, each Chinese citizen emits only 4.7 tonnes of CO2. The figure for the UK is 9.1 tonnes. MNP points out that the estimates of CO2 emissions do not include emissions from flaring and venting of associated gas during oil and gas production or CO2 emissions from deforestation and logging. CO2 emissions from underground coal fires in China and elsewhere are not included either. The magnitude of these sources is very uncertain; according to recent research CO2 emissions from coal fires are estimated at 150-450 megatonnes of CO2 annually in China.

Related links

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Guardian Unlimited special report: As glaciers melt and rivers dry up, coal-fired power stations multiply

Gurdian Unlimated special report:China passes US as world's biggest CO2 emitter