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Coal, a major source of CO2
China has been the world's largest largest emitter of carbon dioxide since about 2006 , when it passed the United States. It was not supposed to overtake the United States as the world’s leading producer of greenhouse gases until 2020 but a study by a Dutch government-funded group released in June 2007 determined that China was already the world’s No. 1 emitter of carbon dioxide at that time. It surpassed the United States in 2006 when it produced 7.5 percent more of these gasses than the United States compared to 2 percent less in 2005.

China accounts for 26.1 percent of global emissions, more than double the U.S. share of 12.8 percent, according to the World Resources Institute (WRI). Per person, China’s 1.4 billion people on average emit the equivalent of 8.4 tons of carbon dioxide annually, according to WRI. That is less than half the U.S. average of 17.7 tons but more than the European Union’s 7.5 tons. [Source: Joe McDonald, Associated Press, April 24, 2022]

China now emits more greenhouse gas than the entire developed world combined,. A report by Rhodium Group said that China emitted 27 percent of the world's greenhouse gases in 2019. It said the the US was the second-largest emitter at 11 percent while India was third with 6.6 percent of emissions. As of 2017, China produced about 29 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide, compared to 21 percent from the United States according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Carbon dioxide emissions are mostly produced by coal-burning energy plants and other coal-burning operations.[Source: BBC, May 7th 2021; Sup China, June 14, 2017]

Websites and Sources: China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environmental Protection (MEP) EIN News Service’s China Environment News Wikipedia article on Environment of China ; Wikipedia ; China Environmental Protection Foundation (a Chinese Government Organization) ; ; China Environmental News Blog (last post 2011) ;Global Environmental Institute (a Chinese non-profit NGO) ; Greenpeace East Asia ; China Digital Times Collection of Articles ; International Fund for China’s Environment .

China, Energy, Coal and Climate Change

Greenhouse gas emissions in China have increased,mainly due to increases in coal use to fuel China’s industrial and economic boom. New power plants have been built, more coal has been burned, and sales of cars, refrigerators and air conditioners have soared. All of these things have led to the production of more carbon dioxide and other gases. Better pollution control and billion-dollar cleanup programs have helped reduced the growth rate of industrial pollution somewhat. Chinese industry is relatively inefficient in its energy usage. Inner Mongolia has highest per capita carbon dioxide emissions in China. This is the product of it being the number one region for coal production in China and having a low population density. While China’s carbon emission average is just a fifth of that of the United States, in this area the 16 tons per person per year are almost twice the level in the U.K.

According to Associated Press: Beijing has avoided joining governments that promised to phase out use of coal-fired power. It has spent tens of billions of dollars on building solar and wind farms to reduce reliance on imported oil and gas and clean up its smog-choked cities. China accounted for about half of global investment in wind and solar in 2020. Still, coal is expected to supply 60 percent of its power in the near future. [Source: Joe McDonald, Associated Press, April 24, 2022]

Beijing is cutting millions of jobs to shrink its bloated, state-owned coal mining industry, but output and consumption still are rising. China’s coal-fired power plants operate at about half their capacity on average, but building more creates jobs and economic activity, said Greenpeace’s Li. He said even if the power isn’t needed now, local leaders face pressure to make them pay for themselves.

Beijing has spent tens of billions of dollars on building solar and wind farms to reduce reliance on imported oil and gas and clean up its smog-choked cities. China accounted for about half of global investment in wind and solar in 2020. Still, coal is expected to supply 60 percent of its power in the near future.

Growth of Carbon Dioxide Emissions in China

Greenhouse gas emissions in China have grown very rapidly. Emissions increased by 56 percent between 1992 and 2002, when it released 3.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide. Between 2002 and 2008 almost doubled again.

The carbon dioxide emissions in 1991 were estimated at 2.4 billion tons a year; In the mid-1990s, China had the world's second-highest level of industrial carbon dioxide emissions, totaling 2.67 billion metric tons per year, a per capita level of 2.27 metric tons per year. By 2000 that level, according to United Nations (UN) statistics, had increased by 16 percent to nearly 2.8 billion tons. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), between 1990 and 2002 the increase was closer to 45 percent. The amounts cited by the UN were more than double those of India and Japan but still less than half those of the United States (comparable figures for Russia were unavailable but were estimated at probably half the level of China’s). China’s ozone depleting potential also is high but was decreasing in the early twenty-first century.

In 2004, China produced 4.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions for 17.4 percent of the world output, compared to 5.9 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions for 21.9 percent of the world output for the United States, 1.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions for 6.2 percent of the world output for Russia and 1.3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions for 4.7 percent of the world output for Japan. China produced 6.23 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2006, compared to 5.8 billion metric tons of the United States. The increase was attributed mostly to increased coal consumption and cement production.

In August 2008, Germany’s IWR Institute concluded that China’s carbon dioxide emissions in 2008 were 6.8 million tons — the most of any nation and 178 percent higher than the 1990 level. At that time the United States and China together accounted for 40 percent of the world's greenhouse gases — most of which was derived from coal. According to a 2007 survey by the Center of Global Development the China power sector alone released 2.68 billion tons of carbon dioxide, compared to 2.79 billion released by the United States and 400 million tons in Japan.

Per capita carbon emissions in 2009 were 4.03 tons for each Chinese compared to 21.75 tons per American and 1.12 tons in India. China’s emissions from transportation and household waste and aviation were relatively low while emissions from power generation were among the highest in the world. [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, November 15, 2009]

For the decade up to 2013, China’s CO2 emissions were the dominant driver of global emissions growth. Between 2012 and 2016 China’s coal use fell and CO2 emissions stabilized. Between 2016 and 2018, the government ran an aggressive stimulus program that breathed life to smokestack industries and caused an increase in CO2 emissions. Clean energy has continued to boom but growth here was cancelled out by an increase in coal demand is driven almost entirely by the power sector.[Source: Zach Boren and Harri Lammi Unearthed, May 30, 2018]

In the early 2010s it was predicted that by 2025 the emission levels in China could be expected to double or triple, equaling increase in the entire industrialized world. Already emission increases in China cancelled the progress made in other countries by reducing emissions in accordance with the Kyoto protocol.

Consequences of Global Warming in China

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Industry, a major source of CO2
A 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted that China will suffer worse consequence from global warming than other parts of world. By some estimates the northern part of the country might experience temperature increased of 5 and 6 degrees C, patterns of rainfall might radically shift, and glaciers in the Himalayas and Tibetan plateau might melt, depriving much the country of water for irrigation and other uses. By some estimates global warming could cost China $39 billion a year, or 5 percent of GDP, within a few decades and cut China’s grain production by a third in the second half of the 21st century.

Global warming is expected to produce droughts and erratic precipitation and exacerbate land degradation in arid areas, making it particularly for subsistence farmers there. Temperature increases of 2̊ to 3̊C by the end of the 21st century are expected affect rainfall, increase desertifcation, intensify typhoons, dry up already scarce water supplies, deplete forests, cause flooding along the coasts, expand the ranges of diseases like malaria and exacerbate the bird flu problem. Migratory birds that would normally fly through China or linger for short period might stay longer, increasing the chance of the disease spreading.

Some predict that global warming will increase rainfall amounts in northern China but increased heat evaporation will negate many of the benefits. Other areas are expected to become drier and more prone to drought. Storms, floods, heat and drought, which currently kill more than 2,000 people in China, are expected to worsen as a result of more extreme weather caused by global warming. A report issued in November 2010 by the environmental group WWF predicted extreme weather, storms, floods and droughts on the Yangtze basin — where 400 million people live — could increase over the next few decades as a result of global warming. The areas of China that are expected to be affected the most by global warming in the future are northeast, which is expected to warm at a rate of 0.36 degrees a decade, and Inner Mongolia, which is expected to warm at a rate of 0.4 degrees a decade.

Summer monsoons were abnormally strong in 2020 but was is not clear whether climate change was a a reason. It has been predicted that climate change will bring more severe and frequent droughts and floods. The occurrence of heavy rains has risen by about 3.8 percent per decade since 1931, according to China’s Blue Book on Climate Change (2019). That’s a total increase of more than 20 percent, said Junyan Liu, climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace East Asia,“Very severe change.” [Source: Alice Su, Los Angeles Times, July 29, 2020]

Heavy Rain Resulting from Climate Change

China is expected to have warmer temperatures and heavier rain as a result of global warming. According to Quartz: “While’s it’s difficult to link any one extreme event to global warming, the new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published Monday (August 9) says that rainfall and floods seen as “once in a decade” events are going to become increasingly more frequent. In east Asia, the IPCC predicts with high confidence that heavy rainfall will increase in frequency and intensity. [Source: Sumnima Kandangwa, Quartz, August 11, 2021]

“Zhengzhou city, in central China’s Henan province, for example, recorded what is typically nearly a year’s worth of rain on a single day. Torrential rain on July 20 caused floods that left more than 300 dead, including many who were trapped in car parks or in the inundated subway system.

“Johnny Chan, professor of atmospheric sciences at City University of Hong Kong, said that such levels of precipitation are “unheard of in that part of the country.” But, as the Earth gets warmer, speeding evaporation, this may not remain unusual. “You can expect to see higher and higher frequency of heavy rain,” said Chan.

“According to a report commissioned by the National Climate Center, part of China Meteorological Administration, mean temperatures in the country were above normal in every season in 2020. Meanwhile, the annual rainfall for the whole country in 2020 ranked as the fourth-highest since 1951. The heavy rainfall caused extreme floods across southern, central, and eastern China. As a result, water levels at the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric plant, located in central China and completed in 2009, rose 6.5 feet above its flood-prevention level.

Rising Sea Levels Could Sink Shanghai and Guangzhou

Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tianjin and the Pearl, Yellow and Yangtze River Deltas are particularly vulnerable to sea level rises associated with global warming. If there is a one meter rise in the sea level brought about global warming it is estimated an area the size of Portugal will be inundated with water, including important manufacturing centers around Shanghai and Guangzhou and 67 million people will have to leave their homes and land.

Scientists at an organization called Climate Central, estimating land elevation from satellite data. predicted that large swaths of Shanghai and Guangzhou could submerged by global warming by the year 2100, Sup China reported: “Sea level rise due to climate change will be at least 0.5 meters by the end of the century, even with “sharp, immediate cuts to carbon emissions,” and levels could rise by two meters or more. Tens of millions more people than previously thought are vulnerable to these rises in sea level. [Source: Sup China, November 4, 2019]

“The consequences for China: Approximately 43 million to 57 million people in China currently live on land that will be under sea level at high tide by the end of the 21st century, according to models in the paper. This makes China one of the worst countries affected. The Yangtze and Pearl River Deltas, where Shanghai and Guangzhou are located, have high concentrations of people in low-lying land. The challenge of coping: Besides mass relocations of people, there are expensive defensive measures like levies that will have to be built soon to deal with this problem in the long run.

“A major climate change review for the Chinese government in 2012 said China's efforts to protect vulnerable coastal areas with embankments were inadequate. It said in the 30 years up to 2009, the sea level off Shanghai rose 11.5 centimeters (4.5 inches); in the next 30 years, it will probably rise another 10 to 15 centimeters. [Source: David Fogarty, Reuters, January 26, 2012]

Impact of Climate Change and Rising Sea Levels on Chinese Agriculture

Piao Shilong of the Center of Climate Research at Peking University wrote in a study published in Nature in August 2010: “Climate change may induce a net yield reduction of 13 percent by 2050. Such pronounced summer warming would inevitably enhance evapo-transpiration, increasing the risk of water shortage for agriculture.” In his study, without taking into consideration technological advancements. he estimated that rice yield could decline by 4 to 14 percent, wheat yields could drop by 2 to 20 percent and corns yields could decline between zero and 23 percent.

Bloomberg reported in 2022: “China’s coastal waters have risen faster than the global average since the 1980s, a worrying trend given the country’s deep reliance on its long and low eastern coast for grain production. Successfully growing salt-tolerant rice on a large scale is one alternative being studied that would allow the country to utilize more of the increasingly salty land in the area. [Source: Bloomberg News, February 19, 2022]

“President Xi Jinping has stressed in several recent meetings with top government officials that ensuring the supply of primary goods is a “major strategic issue” given climate and geopolitical pressures. “The food of the Chinese people must be made by and remain in the hands of the Chinese,” he said at a gathering of the Politburo Standing Committee meeting in December.

“Chinese scientists are betting that land once dismissed as barren can be turned into productive grain-producing plots. About 100 million hectares of land in the country, about the size of Egypt, is high in saline and alkaline. Meanwhile arable land has decreased 6 percent from 2009 to 2019 because of urbanization, pollution and overuse of fertilizers.

“To make use of salty soil, farmers traditionally dilute their fields with large amounts of fresh water. The approach is still commonly used in some coastal regions. But the method requires vast amounts of water and often doesn’t improve yields enough to make sense economically.

Consequences of Global Warming in China That Have Already Occurred

Already significant changes attributed to global warming have occurred. Sea levels in China in 2003 were 600 millimeters above worldwide levels between 1975 to 1986 Chinese reported. Sea levels off of Shanghai, Tianjin and other cities are rising at alarming rates, contributing to the contamination of drinking water supplies. The problem is aggravated by excessive taking of ground water which is causing ground levels to drop. According to the Chinese State Oceanic Administration sea levels rose by 115 millimeters in Shanghai and 196 millimeters in Tianjin between 1978 and 2008 and are expected to rise an average of 3.2 millimeters a year in the coming decade.

The average temperature in China in 2007 was the highest it had been since 1951, according the Chinese meteorological officials. It was also the 11th straight year that China recorded abnormally high temperatures. The average temperature from January to November in 2007 was 11.3̊C, 1.2 C higher than average years. Temperatures on the Tibetan plateau have risen 1̊C in the past 30 years and glaciers and snow cover there are shrinking 10 times faster than during the previous 100 years. Global warming has also been blamed for unusually warm winters, droughts in Sichuan and low levels of the Yangtze. Some have blamed global warming for the mild winters that have caused havoc and melting ice sculptures at the annual winter ice festival in Harbin. Temperatures reached 61 degrees F in early February 2007.

During the 2000s, according to the 2010 WWF survey, temperatures in the Yangtze Basin rose by 1 degree C, causing increases in flooding, heat waves and drought. Glaciers in Tibet and the Himalayas that feed the Yangtze, Yellow, Mekong and Brahmaputra Rivers are melting at a rate as high as 7 percent a year. If these glaciers were to go so would much of the water for these rivers. Global warming is believed to be a major contributor, if not the cause of the problem. By some estimates the equivalent of the annual flow of the Yellow River is melting every year. In the short term this could cause severe floods. In the long term it could cause severe water shortages. Other surveys indicated that heat waves have become more common and the number of cold days has fallen as a result of global warming. In Inner Mongolia, global warming appears to have made the region drier.

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Global Warming, a Good Thing for China?

There are some that have looked back on Chinese history and concluded that global warming may be a good thing for China. The conclusion is based on research that indicates good thing have happened during hot spells and bad things such as the invasion by Genghis Khan and the Mongols happened during cold periods. Xie Zhenghuo of the Chinese Academy of Sciences told the Los Angeles Times, “Historically when the temperatures were warmer, the dynasties were more prosperous . That led people to theorize that global warming might be good for China.”

In the 13th century before the raids by Genghis Khan, Xie said, “With the cold temperatures there was drought in Mongolia. Since people were eating livestock which fed on the grasslands, they needed to go south. When there was warmer weather and more rain, the Mongols didn’t attack.” A similar cold spell occurred during the downfall of the Zhou Dynasty in 771 B.C. while warm spells were occurring when the Shang Dynasty was at its height in the 2nd millennium B.C. and in recent years when the Chinese economy has boomed.

Xie said, warming might be good for agriculture in the north and west, but it would be a disaster for the coastal cities and for the south where Chinese industry is located.”

Image Sources: 1, 2) NASA; 3) Westport schools; 4) AP; 5) University of Washington

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2022

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