US vs. China: How the world’s two biggest emitters stack up on climate
Here’s how the two stack up against each other.
By contrast, the US was responsible for 5.7 billion tons, 11% of total emissions, followed by India (6.6%) and the European Union (6.4%).
When scientists measure greenhouse gas emissions, they look at the total emissions that a country pumps into the air on their own land every year. Those emissions come from anything powered by fossil-fuels, including driving cars that run on gasoline, flying, heating and lighting buildings with power generated from coal, natural gas or oil, as well as from powering industry. Other sources, like emissions from deforestation, are included too.
No country in the world has put more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than the United States. And by a long way.
While China is by far the biggest emitter today, it hasn’t always been. And that’s important because emissions released even hundreds of years ago have contributed to global warming today. The world has already warmed by 1.2 degrees Celsius since the start of the Industrial Revolution, and scientists say we need to keep it to 1.5 degrees to stave off worsening impacts of the climate crisis.
The US, on the other hand, industrialized decades earlier and has released 509 billion tons of CO2 — twice as much.
China is a huge country of 1.4 billion people, so it makes sense it would emit more than smaller nations overall. But when you look at emissions per capita, the average Chinese person emits quite a bit less than the average American.
In 2019, China’s per capita emissions reached 10.1 tons. By comparison, the US reached 17.6 tons, according to the Rhodium Group.
That’s not to say China shouldn’t be slashing emissions. China’s per capita carbon footprint is rapidly catching up with those of wealthier nations — in the past 20 years, it’s nearly tripled.
In 2020, fossil fuels made up 87% of China’s domestic energy mix, with 60% from coal, 20% from oil and 8% from natural gas, according to Enerdata.
In the US, 80% of the energy mix comes from fossil fuels. Of that, 33% is from oil, 36% from natural gas, and 11% from coal, Enerdata figures showed.
Natural gas produces fewer emissions than coal, but it is still harmful to the climate, and there are growing concerns that the US and other parts of the world are investing too heavily in gas instead of renewables.
China is the world’s biggest user and producer of coal, consuming more than half the world’s supply. That’s in part because China produces so many products and materials for the world, which is why it’s sometimes referred to as “the world’s factory.”
While China is the world’s biggest emitter and still relies heavily on coal, it is producing huge amounts of renewable energy as well.
In terms of energy mix, China and the US are around the same. Wind, solar, hydro-power, geothermal, as well as biomass and waste, make up 10% of China’s energy consumption.
The US was not far off, at 9%. But nearly half of that is from biomass, which is energy derives from substance that were recently alive, like wood from trees, algae or animal waste. Some experts and scientists argue isn’t always truly renewable.
But because China uses much more power overall, it has produced more renewable energy than the US in real terms. In 2020, China produced 745,000 gigawatt-hours of energy from wind and solar, according to Enerdata. The US produced 485,000 gigawatt-hours.
China has built vast solar and wind farms — producing more solar PVs and wind turbines than any other nation. It also has the biggest electric vehicle market, taking 38.9% of the global share of electric car sales, while the US took 9.9%, the renewables report said.
So, what’s the verdict?
China expresses its commitments in terms of “carbon intensity” which allows for more emissions the more its GDP rises, which makes it difficult to compare to the US’. It submitted its new emissions plan to the UN on Thursday, but made only a modest improvement.
In other words, neither country is cutting enough carbon or making the transition to renewables fast enough to limit warming to 1.5 degrees.
CNN’s Yong Xiong contributed reporting.