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Despite Major Efforts, China Still Needs to Cut Greenhouse Gases by at Least as Much as U.S. Emissions

May 27, 2021

As the Biden administration ramps up U.S. efforts to address climate change, comparisons to other countries are often raised, particularly to China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Its energy-related emissions are almost double those of the United States. Furthermore, new data indicate that China’s emissions jumped 15% in the first quarter of this year relative to last year, as China rebounds from its COVID-19 lockdown.

The China Energy Outlook, compiled by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), finds that China is taking steps to improve its energy efficiency and cut emissions but both will likely continue to increase in the 2020s as the country continues its building spree and remains reliant on coal. The Berkeley Lab Outlook also shows that China has done a lot to improve energy efficiency and reduce emissions but has much more to do – an amount equivalent to total current U.S. emissions hangs in the balance.

Energy and Emissions Trends

As part of China’s 13th Five-Year-Plan period (2016-2020), China set 2020 goals of reducing energy intensity and CO2 emission intensity by 15% and 18%, respectively, and deriving approximately 15% of total primary energy from non-fossil sources.

Despite its rising emissions, Berkeley Lab finds that China appears to be on track to meet these key goals because of several factors: energy efficiency; growth in the service-sector proportion of China’s economy; growth in renewable, nuclear, and natural gas energy; and a modestly declining portion of energy use coming from coal. (Coal use is still growing but growing more slowly than in boom years in the past).


The Outlook profiles 42 Chinese policies focused on reducing energy and related emissions. Some notable examples are:

·       Appliance and equipment standards: China currently has mandatory efficiency standards on 73 product categories, compared to more than 60 in the United States.

·       Light- and heavy-duty vehicle fuel economy standards: The current Chinese standard for passenger vehicles (about 35 miles per gallon in 2020) is more stringent than the U.S. standard (about 31 mpg in 2020) (see here).

·       Electric vehicle incentives: China’s New Energy Vehicle program promotes electric and fuel cell vehicles with incentives, a large build-out of charging infrastructure, and other steps. Preliminary data show 1.34 million electric vehicles were sold in China in 2020, compared to 0.33 million in the United States; China has also made world-leading progress on electrifying buses.

·       Local government carbon targets: As part of its Low-Carbon Pilot Cities and Provinces Program, 83 cities and provinces have established targets for when CO2 emissions will peak. They are conducting energy and GHG emissions inventories, preparing action plans, and establishing local standards and incentives.

Many of China’s policies are similar to policies in the U.S. and other countries, which provided lessons for Chinese policymakers. Likewise, U.S. policymakers may be able to learn from some aspects of Chinese policies.

China’s Energy and Emissions Future

Multiple studies project China’s energy use and emissions out to 2050 under various scenarios, as shown in the figure below. Most scenarios published in the last two years show emissions peaking by 2030, but some show level emissions through 2050 while others show declines. In its continuous improvement scenario, Berkeley Lab shows that emissions could decline dramatically by 2050 if China adopts the maximum share of today’s commercially available, cost-effective energy efficiency and renewable energy supply by 2050.

The difference between level emissions from 2030 to 2050 and the Berkeley Lab Continuous Improvement Scenario is the same order of magnitude as current U.S. emissions, showing the importance of China embracing this lower-emissions path. The Berkeley Lab and several other scenarios are shown in the figure below.



China has an impressive track record of energy and emissions policies that are putting it on track to reach peak emissions by 2030, but it clearly needs to do much more — and quickly. As the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, China has a special obligation to reduce its emissions given their very large impact on the global environment. The same can be said of the United States; the two countries together account for more than 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

In September 2020, Chinese President Xi pledged that China would peak its total CO2 emissions before 2030 and become carbon neutral by 2060. This pledge goes beyond even the Berkeley Lab scenario.

The Berkeley Lab China Energy Outlook shows a path for China to pursue improved energy efficiency and use of renewable energy to dramatically reduce its emissions, but even more effort will be needed to meet China’s new goals. Berkeley Lab is now exploring deep decarbonization pathways for China to meet their new goal. China should pursue such a path, and the United States should assist while also putting itself on a similar path. ACEEE will continue to track energy policies in China, the United States, and other countries in a new edition of our International Energy Efficiency Scorecard, set to be published next year.

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