China emits more CO2 per person than the EU

coal consuming china

Transporting coal in China. [Han Jun Zeng/Flickr]

In 2013, China’s per capita CO2 emissions surpassed Europe’s for the first time ever. In addition, China represented nearly 60% of last year’s total global emissions increase. As a result, the longterm goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees appears increasingly elusive, warns a Global Carbon Project (GCP) report published on 21 September.

China has long stressed that its ‘developing country’ status should give it more leeway in its efforts to cut emissions and that it should not be bound to any global mandatory climate targets.

Industrialized nations are chiefly responsible for global warming, and should make the greatest contribution to emission cuts, argues the Asian powerhouse.

Thus, China independently set its own targets, such as a 40-45% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions per unit of GDP by 2020.

Nevertheless, it still consumes about half of the world’s thermal coal, according to a Carbon Tracker report. GCP found that coal burning remained the main source (43%) of global emissions in 2013.

Hurray for Europe?

Meanwhile, Europe was the only key region that registered a drop in emissions in 2013. It released 11% less pollutants in the atmosphere than the prior year, thus modestly compensating for increases in other regions.

Europe’s emissions decline should not be cause for celebration since it is largely attributed to the economic downturn. Historically, financial crises have had little lasting effect on emissions, according to GCP data. Further, GDP and carbon intensity trends are relatively stable over time, leading to stable emission growth.

Thus, GCP forecasts a 2.5% emissions increase in 2014, slightly above last year’s 2.3%, and steady yearly increases would “likely” lead to a 3.2-5.4 degrees rise in the world’s temperature by 2100.

This is significantly above the 2 degrees threshold when, according to international institutions such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global warming would inflict the most dangerous damage to the planet.

It’s all coal’s fault

Opinions diverge on the likelihood of the most catastrophic scenarios and the role coal would play in them. According to Carbon Tracker, global coal demand will peak by 2016, coinciding with a peak in China’s domestic thermal coal consumption.

Slowing GDP growth, the structural transformation of China from a heavy industry to a service economy, and an aggressive programme of energy efficiency and energy source diversification would reduce the share of coal in power generation from 76.1% in 2013 to 55.8% by 2020, thus slowing emissions growth.

But even if coal was entirely removed from global power generation, the 2 degree threshold would still be breached, warns a separate report from the Climate Action Tracker. Global warming would not be so severe though if coal is mostly replaced by renewables rather than gas.

Speaking today at the opening ceremony of the United Nations Climate Summit, IPCC Chairman Rajendra K. Pachauri will say: “We are told that limiting climate change will be too expensive. It will not. But wait until you get the bill for inaction. There are costs of taking action – but they are nothing compared to the cost of inaction.”

Brussels has sought to lead efforts to curb global warming with more ambitious carbon-cutting goals than any other bloc, but some of its member states, notably Poland, say there is no point in Europe taking the lead when it is responsible for little more than 10% of global emissions.

About 40% of greenhouse gas emissions come from the US, the world's second biggest emitter, and China, which tops the pollution table.

To prepare its negotiating stance ahead of the 2015 talks, the EU executive proposed 2030 climate and energy goals, including a 40% carbon-cutting target. That compares with a 2020 goal to cut emissions by 20% from 1990 levels, which has almost been achieved.

By contrast, the US has said it will reduce carbon by 17% by 2020 compared with 2005, a fall of just 3.5% below 1990 levels.

  • 23 September: UN Climate Summit
  • 23-24 October: EU leaders are expected to agree the EU climate and energy package for 2030 and recommendations for the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris;
  • 30 November to 11 December 2015: 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris to try to conclude a universal climate change agreement;
  • 2020: New climate change agreement would enter into force;
  • 2020: Deadlne for EU to meet binding targets for 20% cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, improvements in energy efficiency, and market share for renewable energy.
  • Global Carbon Project report

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