China’s current share of global greenhouse gas emissions is greater than any other country. So it is an interesting question whether climate action could be more usefully directed towards China rather than reducing our own emissions?  Based on total emissions per country, China’s current emissions rank highest followed by the US and then India, the EU and Russia.

But to make a fair comparison of contributions, the emissions per person should be considered. China has the world’s largest population, about to be or already overtaken by India’s. When looking at CO2 emissions per person, countries in the Middle East rank highest (Qatar, Kuwait, UAE, Saudi Arabia) followed by Canada, Australia and the US. China’s levels are less than half those of the US, and India’s are very low, less than half the UK’s. In relation to population, China has arguably done more than any other country to control its population through its One Child Policy between 1980 and 2015.

Since emissions stay in the atmosphere for hundreds, and indeed thousands, of years, another way to consider this is which country is responsible for the largest share of the emissions already emitted that have caused the 1.2 C of heating that the world is already experiencing. If all our historical emissions are added together, US emissions are double China’s which ranks second, followed by Russia.

China is a huge manufacturing country making goods for other countries. The UK, Europe and the US buy and consume these goods. This raises another question. Should the country where the imported goods are consumed share some responsibility for the emissions caused through their production?

China continues to rely on coal to fuel its economy and manufacturing industry. The UK relied on coal in the past to industrialise. In the 1950s, 70% of the UK’s electricity came from coal. The UK Government now plans to phase out the last coal power station by 2024. However, permission has just been granted for a new coal mine to mine coking coal for steel production. The Government has stated that the construction of the mine will be net zero, but the burning of the coal, 85% of which will be exported, will contribute to emissions.

On renewables, the International Energy Agency reports that China is installing more solar capacity than the US and Europe combined. In 2020, China built more than half of the world’s new wind power capacity.  The electric vehicle industry in China is the largest in the world. China has three electric car brands Neo, BYD and Xpeng, and cars in city centres are mostly restricted to electric cars due to very high charges for non-electric vehicles. Mopeds in cities are now electric, with free charging for electric mopeds.

The city of Shenzhen in China, home to 12 million people, has been operating 16,000 electric buses and 22,000 electric taxis since 2017. The buses transport over 1 million passengers per day, and a BYD double-decker bus has a range of 250 km. China has the world’s largest high-speed train network, known as bullet trains, they travel over 200 mph replacing domestic flights. So China is making strong progress in its energy transition away from fossil fuels.

Technology is rapidly evolving in clean energy and electrification of transport in the race to decarbonise our economies. China has been quick to adopt and scale up these new technologies. For the UK economy to remain strong, we need to invest in these new technologies or we risk being left behind and becoming uncompetitive and poorer while other countries move on to better, cheaper technologies.

At COP26, the UK led the charge to ‘Consign coal to history’. One year later, and one month after COP27, the UK is now planning to open a new coal mine. Every sector, in every country, needs to completely decarbonise as soon as possible if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change.  The COP process is aimed at getting all countries on board. The best way we can do this is from a position of strength and leadership by meeting our own emissions reduction targets while working to convince and cooperate with the rest of the world to bring about global net zero emissions. 

Greenhouse gas emissions by country

CO2 emissions by country per person, and cumulative emissions  

China installing solar