How China and the US Stack Up on Greenhouse Emissions, And How They Might Work Together To Reduce Them

Originally published on on April 21, 2021

In 2016, President Trump came to power in the USA. In what now seems like a perfect irony, 2016 was the hottest year on record for the world since the 1880s, according to NOAA and NASA.

In late 2019, Trump formally notified the UN that the US was withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on climate change. The Agreement had been signed by 200 nations to cut greenhouse emissions and to help poorer countries manage their mitigation efforts.  Ironically, the same year of 2019 turned out to be the second-hottest year on record.

In early 2021, President Biden reversed the decision and the US rejoined the Paris Agreement. His envoy, John Kerry, just returned from China with an agreement that they would work together on climate change “with the seriousness and urgency that it demands.”

Let’s look into the history of Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to illuminate the differences in the two countries, and suggest some ways they could work together.

History of industrialization:

China and the USA are the two biggest GHG polluters, and China was often the scapegoat when the Trump administration tried to justify the Paris withdrawal.  

By studying the history of each country’s GHG emissions, it becomes easier to understand the role played by industrialization.

Figure 1 shows carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil fuels and cement-making over time. CO2 is a proxy for GHG as it’s the dominant component of GHG. The figure reveals the industrialization of US and Europe, first, then later the industrialization of a second group of countries, mostly China, India, Africa and the Middle East.

Figure 1. Annual total CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and cement production. Source: Our World in Data.

Figure 1. Annual total CO2 emissions from fossil fuels and cement production. Source: Our World in Data.

An observer from China might say, “You cannot blame us for industrializing — we’re doing just what you did decades ago.”

An observer in the US might respond, “Yes, but we’ve flattened the curve on GHG emissions, when are you going to flatten your curve?”

Both observers have a valid point.

The crux of the issue is: have China and India industrialized to the same extent that the US and Europe have? If you have visited the countryside of China, away from the shiny new cities, you know the answer to this question.

It’s worth looking at the numbers to get a proper perspective on this.

How do China and US stack up?

A common question leveled at China is: Why should the US cut back their GHG emissions when China is increasing its GHG emissions (Figure 1)? China seems to be blasting ahead on two fronts: (1) increasing its in-country power plants that burn coal, (2) furthering its Belt and Road expansions (an international endeavor) that don’t seem to mitigate climate change.

Table 1. Side-by side comparison between US, China and India.

Table 1. Side-by side comparison between US, China and India. The data in Table 1 was extracted from Our World in Data.

Main results are:

  • China produces about twice the GHG emissions that US does.
  • China releases only about half the GHG emissions per capita.
  • This is because the GDP per capita is four times higher in the US than in China.

From the GDP numbers, the industrialization surge in China (Figure 1) has not encompassed the entire population.

While in the US an average family has two cars and two TVs, this is not so in China. The US average family own lawnmowers, weed-eaters, hairdryers and electric shavers, In China they do not. The US uses microwaves and blenders and dish washers in the average kitchen, and think nothing of it. But in many households in China, such amenities are out of reach.

The disparity has been addressed by Blair King:

“Climate change, while an important priority, is not the only priority for world governments. Climate change has the potential to kill millions in the future, but energy poverty is killing millions today. We live in a world where 1.1 billion people live in energy poverty and each year 4.3 million people die from preventable indoor air pollution directly resulting from that energy poverty. Governments in developing nations are going to prioritize the health of today’s people over those of tomorrow. . . . China and India still have deep poverty and hardship to fight.”

The statement of course is exactly what an observer in China would say to justify their rising GHG emissions.

The same statement is why wealthy nations signed the Paris Accords to provide technology and funding to assist poorer nations to mitigate climate change in their countries. But China is not a poorer nation, as their huge Belt and Road program proves, so they don’t really fall into that category.

Obvious solutions.

After John Kerry’s meeting with China last week, the US and China said they would work together on climate change.

But how on earth would they work together to solve the problem the whole world has: to mitigate global GHG emissions in a timely fashion? Some possible solutions are offered below.

First, if China chooses to catch up in their GDP by persisting to burn fossil fuels, their GHG emissions will continue to soar. China has to push back from coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels.

China has over 1,000 coal-burning power plants operating. But, according to a recent report, 600 of these would need to be closed down to meet the climate pledges it has made.

Replacing coal power plants by natural gas will help, as it has helped in US (see flattening of the US curve in Figure 1.) China has been importing LNG (liquefied natural gas) from Australia for years, and more recently from USA.

But the cost of new-build renewables and batteries for storage is now as cheap as new fossil power plants. Should a country like China go directly from burning coal to renewables plus big-batteries needed for electricity storage. Australia seems to be showing the way with commitments to build several big-batteries in the next few years (note that the commitment lies at the state level, not federal.)

A paralyzing fact remains: China’s GHG will continue to rise until 2030 (dashed line in Figure 1). One wonders if the date of 2030 was calculated from a desired boost in GDP per capita (Table 1.)

The total GHG emissions from China, India, Africa, and Middle East might top out at 5 billion tonnes of GHG per annum higher than it is now – and such an increment would be about 14% of the world’s total GHG now.

Less obvious solutions.

The US could set up some basis for sharing climate technology with China. One such is carbon capture and storage, which oil companies in the US have done for decades. Perhaps in exchange for solar or other renewable technologies in which the US trails China.

Another example is the renewable system of carbon-free energy that Rick Perry set up in Texas several years ago. If Texas was its own country, it would have been the fourth-largest wind producer in the world in 2017. Trading information in technology, infrastructure and economics at a state level might be of some value to China. This could include learnings from the close call that Texas faced during the recent polar express that caused so much loss-of-power turmoil: cold, darkness, hunger, anxiety, and financial loss.

China and the US could cooperate and join in practical research to make big-batteries (crucial to solar and wind renewables) more efficient, longer-lasting, and cheaper, plus a secure and reliable supply of battery chemicals such as lithium.

From a chemical-biological perspective, the US and China could pursue together studies for converting CO2 to fuels (e.g. by bacterial methods).

Finally, ExxonMobil has floated a recent vision to create a massive consortium of government and oil and gas companies to capture and store carbon dioxide (CO2) under the Gulf of Mexico – to the tune of $100 billion. The CO2 would be collected from dozens of oil and gas facilities, such as refineries, situated along the shores of the Gulf.

If the US and China wanted to think really big, they could together propose an even larger consortium of governments and energy companies – perhaps a trillion dollars over 10 years. The new entity could work out of offices in China and the US and do applied research on the promising ideas to reduce GHG, whether it be renewables and batteries and infrastructure, carbon capture and storage, efficiency of buildings, or green hydrogen.

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