The Rhodium Group, a US-based research provider, published its most recent stocktake of 2019 global GHG emissions on 06 May 2021, according to which the People’s Republic of China (PRC) eclipsed the aggregate emissions of OECD members for the first time since the beginning of its records. Of the 52 gigatons of global emissions in that year – including all six Kyoto gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and the so-called F-gases) – up to 27% were now being produced within the borders of China. In absolute terms, this cracked the 14 gigaton landmark for the first time and dwarfed the national total of the second-biggest emitter, the US (11% of global emissions).

Even when the emissions of all other members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a club of mostly rich countries (including all EU states), were summed up, they only amounted to 14,057 million metric tons of CO2-equivalent in 2019, about 36 million metric tons short of China’s total.

In a similar vein, per-capita emissions of China and the OECD are approaching equivalence, too. With 10.1 tons per person, China comes in just shy of the OECD’s average citizen’s emission of 10.5 tons of CO2-equivalents in a year.

While China’s emission volume certainly qualifies as a cause for concern within the larger context of global ambitions to limit global warming to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, the country’s green performance can perhaps still be argued to be more reasonable than the absolute number might initially let on. For one, China’s cumulative emissions are still behind those of other affluent nations. According to Oxford University (EN), the US alone accounts for nearly twice the PRC’s historical discharge; the OECD’s combined emissions surmount China’s by a factor of four. Additionally, while the country is inching towards parity with the largest economy in the world, the PRC accommodates nearly 4.5 times as many people as the US. The Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC) estimates that if Chinese citizens were to enjoy the same level of ‘CO2-largesse’ as their American peers, the world’s annual emissions would go up nearly 15%, cutting the global community’s outstanding time till the planet’s carbon budget is depleted by a full two years (EN).

Hence, while comparatively lower per-capita emissions vis-á-vis rich countries are keeping China’s total emissions in check, for now, they are also at the root of many a climate pundit’s headaches. Given that the average income per capita (adjusted for purchasing power) in the People’s Republic still amounts to only US$16,804 compared to the average American’s US$65,298, experts worry that the potential for China’s emissions to drastically balloon as it moves up economic ranks is a considerable peril to the world’s collective climate goal. And despite recent initiatives of the central government under the 14th Five-Year Plan, which aim to limit the worst effects of runaway climate change, specialists’ minds are not put at ease. Just at the beginning of the year, for instance, Beijing approved the expansion of China’s coal-based energy generation capacities by an additional 38.4 gigawatts, putting total coal power under development at 247 gigawatts; enough to power the whole of Germany.

What the Rhodium Group’s finding has clearly exposed is that China is slowly but surely matching its OECD peers in everything from GHG output to prosperity levels. As such, it is crucial that China ambitiously pursues the climate goals set by the Chinese government. Also, international cooperation and intergovernmental exchanges will be needed to assist China in sustainably increasing its’ people’s wealth.

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