The interesting facts about China and climate change

Published Tuesday, January 31, 2017 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

“It’s all China’s fault,” you often hear in commentaries and conversations about climate change.  Plus, in this country, often a postscript about how small our emissions are in comparison. 

Truth or fiction?  Here are some facts about China’s emissions and actions, with a few comparisons to Canada.


China is indeed the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases.  According to the World Resource Institute, China’s emissions eclipsed those of the US, the previous longstanding leader, in 2005, and they’ve been growing rapidly since.  

In 2012, China’s emitted nearly 11 billion tonnes, about 25 per cent of total global emissions.  In comparison, Canadian emissions were 714 million tonnes, or 1.6 per cent.

But that’s only part of the story; here are two more critical realities.

First, China’s population is 1.35 billion; divide the country’s emissions over its population and you discover that China’s per capita carbon footprint is about eight tonnes of CO2 annually.  Do the same math for Canada, and you discover that our per capita carbon footprint is 20.5 tonnes – among the highest in the world.  

In other words, the average Canadian generates two and a half times the emissions of the average Chinese.  If everyone in the world lived like a Canadian, global emissions would be triple what they actually are.

Second, China is currently going through the same emission-intensive industrialization process that Canada and other western nations followed over the past century in building our first-world lifestyles.  (And who can blame them for wanting to?  We have it pretty good.)  

But industrialization comes with a pretty hefty emissions footprint.  

If you add up all of Canada’s historical emissions and divide them over our population today (28 billion tonnes of emissions since the industrial revolution divided over 35 million Canadians), you discover that embedded in every single Canadian today is a legacy of over 800 tonnes of emissions.  

Do the same math for China, and the legacy figure is 113 tonnes, or about one-seventh ours.

So, all things considered, it’s a bit disingenuous for we Canadians to absolve ourselves of responsibility for climate change and instead point at China.  (The same analysis shows India to be even less at fault.)

Renewable energy

China is the world’s largest consumer of coal and still uses it to generate about three-quarters of its power – hence the horrendous air quality in many cities.  However, that’s changing fast.

Ten years ago, China had virtually no wind power.  Today, it is the world leader, with more wind power than all of Europe combined and more than double the US.  In 2015 alone, China installed 31 gigawatts (GW) of new capacity.  (For comparison, NB’s entire power grid is about 3 GW.)  It’s estimated that a new turbine is built there every 30 minutes.  

In 2010, China had virtually no solar power.  Today, the country is the world leader.  China plans to have 150 GW (yes, enough to run 50 New Brunswicks) installed by 2020.

Three years ago, China had very few electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles.  Today, it has nearly one million.

Last year, China announced plans to close more than 1000 coal mines.  Numerous coal-fired power plants – including several already under construction – have been cancelled, and a moratorium has been placed on new ones.  China invested over $100 billion into clean energy in 2015, more than double the European Union.  

To be sure, China has a long way to go, and will be burning coal for some time to come.  But imagine global progress if all countries acted on the scale China is.

So the next time you hear someone – perhaps even an elected leader – blame everything on China, feel free to share this information with them.  Even in a post-truth era, there is great virtue in truth.