While GHG Levels Keep Rising With Increasing Industrial Activity in China, Carbon Intensity Has Been On Continuous Downward Trajectory

While GHG Levels Keep Rising With Increasing Industrial Activity in China, Carbon Intensity Has Been On Continuous Downward Trajectory

Submitted by China Country Manager Annette Wiedenbach

Current GHG Emissions

China’s most recent data on Greenhouse Gas emissions, or most concretely on carbon dioxide emissions, is covered by a number of databases. A wide variety of databases follow greenhouse gas emissions developments in China. Their data for 2019 CO2 and CO2 equivalent (CO2e) emissions range from 11,535.20 – 13,553 MtCO2e/year, compared to a 1990 range of 2,404.74 – 3.265 MtCO2e/year. All monitors, however, concur that the steepest increase in CO2 and equivalent emissions took place in the first decade of the 2000’s, with emissions generally flattening around 2015 and a renewed steeper increase starting around 2018.

China’s Ministry of Environment and Ecology generates its own local data which it publishes. The report, however, states concentration levels. In the 2019 report greenhouse gas emissions for 2018 are reported as: “average concentrations of CO2, CH4 and N2O were 409.4±0.3 ppm, 1,923±2 ppb and 331.4±0.1 ppb respectively. (…) Greenhouse gas concentrations have been steadily on the increase, compared e.g. to 2016 when CO2 concentration was 404.4 ppm (…). The average concentrations of methane and nitrous oxide are 1907 ppb and 329.7 ppb, respectively (…)”

Climate Goals

In 2009 China, for the first time actively committed to climate action by announcing concrete targets for 2030, pledging to lower carbon intensity by 40 – 45% from 2005. The country did not commit to a concrete carbon emissions cap. China currently measures success in reducing GHG emissions based on carbon intensity which describes the amount of CO2 and equivalent gases emitted per unit of production. The unit of production is usually given in terms of GDP, e.g., for every 10,000 CNY of GDP produced, a specific amount of CO2e is emitted, depending on whether oil, gas or coal is used as energy source. While overall CO2 levels have been increasing due to growing industrial production (from steel to IT devices) – especially last year when China more than ever compensated for production interruptions in other countries under lockdown – the amount of carbon emission created per 10,000 CNY of GDP has been steadily decreasing, mainly due to mandated energy saving measures for production facilities as well as energy source switches from coal to cleaner natural gas. Less coal needed for production means less emissions, but increased production levels need more coal overall.

In addition, China in 2009 committed to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in the primary energy mix to about 15% and to increase the forested area by 40 million hectares and forest stock volume by 1.3 bn m3.

Prior to signing the Paris Agreement in 2015, China had already achieved a reduction of its carbon intensity by 33.8% and expanded the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to 11.2%; while the forested area and forest stock volume had increased respectively by 21.6 million hectares and ~2.2 bn m3.

By 2018, China had – despite increasing energy needs and production – managed to reduce its carbon intensity with the help of more stringent industry policies demanding and implementing cleaner production. Carbon emissions intensity was down by 45.8% compared to 2005, thus fulfilling the original NDC goals ahead of time. By 2020, carbon emissions intensity had reduced by 48.4% from the 2005 level while the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption increased to 15.9%.

While the NDC commits China to the general direction, the more relevant guideline to follow are China’s Five-Year Plans (FYP). China’s roadmap to climate mitigation has been furthermore enshrined President Xi’s political philosophy to establish an “Ecological Civilization” and “building a beautiful China”. The recently concluded 13th FYP constituted the most consistent plan yet for sustainable development, balancing the need for economic growth while integrating environmental protection for air, water, soil, forest stock and the climate. Each National FYP is further detailed by specific sector five-year plans prescribing goals for the environmental, industrial, agricultural or forestry sectors. These are then further translated into concrete laws and regulations on a national and provincial level. In addition to the 13th FYP, China has published the “National Climate Change Mitigation Plan (2014 – 2020)”, which addressed issues specific to climate change. One example for a local, non NDC-related target was the reduction of coal consumption to under 59% in the total energy mix. This target was met in 2019 when coal consumption accounted for 57.7 % of total energy consumption.

Over the past decade, effort was spent on adjusting the industrial and energy structure to achieve cleaner production, increase alternative forms of energy sources and promote energy saving; on reforestation and land rehabilitation to increase carbon sinks; on strengthening the legal framework to improve environmental governance; on building capacity and empowering public participation through information dissemination and action through approved channels.

While China has not issued any revised Nationally Determined Contributions to the Paris Climate Accord, President Xi in September 2021officially committed the country to carbon emissions neutrality by 2060 and to peak CO2 emissions by 2030 or potentially earlier. China furthermore aims “to lower its carbon intensity by over 65% from the 2005 levels, increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 25%, increase the forest stock volume by 6 bn m3 from the 2005 levels, and bring its total installed capacity of wind and solar power to over 1.2 billion kilowatts.” The 14th Five-Year Plan, published March 2020, points towards continued energy reform, with nuclear energy apparently making a comeback in addition to specific provincial targets renewable energy capacities. High hopes hinge on the Emissions Trading Scheme which was recently rolled out nationwide and which is expected to regulate greenhouse gas emissions through market-based incentives. During its pilot phase from 2011 to 2020, the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) reports that a total of 3,000 enterprises across the power, steel, and cement industries in seven pilot areas had reached a cumulative transaction volume of more than 400 mio tons CO2e, trading a total accumulated 9 bn CNY. Absent in the 14th FYP is an absolute greenhouse gas cap, given that the government still considers China to be among the developing countries, with a need to developing its industry and economy for better prosperity.

The MEE is furthermore in the process of preparing a “National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy 2035”, including lessons from the outcomes of the previous “Climate Change Mitigation Plan”. The new strategy aims at clarifying the goals and measures for China’s climate change adaptation until 2035, integrating considerations regarding scientific development, infrastructure building, and poverty eradication. It can be expected that this strategy together with an environment specific five-year plan will lay out the roadmap for China’s low carbon transition in accordance with the national 14th FYP.


Director Gao LI,

Department of Climate Change,
Ministry of Ecology and Environment of the People’s Republic of China

For English:         



(中文) http://www.mee.gov.cn/hdjl/bzxxzs_1/






Holzmann, Anna; Nis Grünberg “GREENING” CHINA” An analysis of Beijing’s sustainable development strategies https://merics.org/sites/default/files/2021-01/210107_MERICSChinaMonitor_GreeningChina_1.pdf






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