The Largest Emitters: China and the U.S.

The United States and China are the largest emitters of greenhouse gas emissions, representing nearly 43% of emissions when combined (UNCS 2020). The United States is considered a developed country and is powered primarily by large domestic reserves of oil and natural gas, while China is often considered a developing country, depending on the metric used, and is powered by large domestic reserves of coal (China Power Project n.d.). These two different economic situations create difficulties when setting emissions rules in a fair and balanced way as was seen with the issues that surrounded the Kyoto Protocol where the United States did not sign onto the agreement since China was exempted due to their developing status (Tardi 2021). Investigating the current energy mix and future policies helps compare and contrast the two countries as they both strive towards a cleaner and more energy independent resource mix.

Figure 1. Each Country’s Share of CO2 Emissions

Source: (UNCS 2020).

Current Energy Usage and Mix

When looking at total emissions, it is clear that China is the largest carbon dioxide emitter at 10.06 gigatons emitted versus 5.41 gigatons from the second place U.S. (UNCS 2020). However, when looking at the energy use per capita as show in Figure 2, the United States has nearly triple the electricity usage per person as China (Ritchie and Roser 2020). This indicates that the large volume of Chinese emissions is primarily due to their much larger population. When looking at emissions per capita, the United States ranks 4th in the world while China only ranks 13th (UNCS 2020).

Figure 2. Per Capita Energy Use

Source: (Ritchie and Roser 2020).

Additionally, the percent of the Chinese electricity mix that is renewable energy is currently significantly higher than the United States as seen in figure 3. However, when looking at the mix of renewables in each country’s entire energy mix, which also includes transportation and heating, it can be seen in figure 4 that the United States has a slightly higher renewable use mix (Ritchie and Roser 2020). In the last ten years, China’s rate of increase of renewable implementation within their total energy mix has been greatly outpacing the rate of change seen in the United States.

Figure 3. Electricity Production from Renewables by Country

Source: (Ritchie and Roser 2020).

Figure 4. Primary Energy from Renewables by Country

Source: (Ritchie and Roser 2020).

Future Energy Policy Plans

While both countries are looking to reduce their emissions while increasing their energy independence, the reliance on their domestic fossil fuel reserves creates differences in planning. The United States has large reserves of natural gas, a lower carbon emitting resource than coal, which has led to a reduction in coal plants as the majority of plants are over 30 years old and are retiring at a high rate as an increase in natural gas plants takes over. Conversely, China has limited oil and gas reserves, but plentiful coal reserves, so they continue to build out record levels of coal plants and will continue to even as their latest Five-Year Plan (FYP-14) indicates a focus on renewables (Kemp 2021). The United States currently has a larger share of energy coming from nuclear energy, however, since the beginning of the 1990s that percentage has not changed, and current policy plans do not indicate that the trend will change with only two new plants under construction. Conversely, China currently has outlined a strong focus on implementing more nuclear energy for zero-emissions baseload energy needs, with 11 plants currently under construction and more planned (Xie 2021).

Figure 5. Percent of Energy from Nuclear by Country

Source: (Ritchie and Roser 2020).

While both countries continue to focus their policies on increasing solar and wind installations, as well as electrification of transport, to decrease emissions and energy dependency, China has set a strong focus on energy efficiency as well. With a young and evolving energy system, high industrial use, and a much larger population, this focus has massive potential to create significant reductions in global emissions despite the continued use of coal (Tan and Lee 2017). While China will likely always maintain a higher volume of total emissions due to population alone, the policy actions they are aggressively taking, and the progress they have made over the past 10 years in renewables, is likely to lead to them surpassing the United States in nuclear and renewable penetration. This is good news for global energy sustainability since China’s actions can create the largest improvements, however, this could continue the weakening of the United States’ position in a decarbonizing world if stronger unified actions are not taken in a gridlocked political system. Based on the Climate Action Tracker, the United States policies are ‘critically insufficient’ if adopted globally and would likely to lead to a greater than 4 degree Celsius increase, whereas China’s policies are only ‘highly insufficient’ but likely to would lead to less than 4 degree Celsius increase in global temperatures if adopted by all countries (Climate Action Tracker 2020). There is clearly room for improvement, but currently it appears that China will be taking the lead in decarbonization.

Figure 6. Climate Policy Scenario Analysis

Source: adapted from (Climate Action Tracker 2020).

Author: Logan Callen


China Power Project. n.d. “Is China a Developed Country?” China Power Project. Accessed May 27, 2021.

Climate Action Tracker. 2020. “Countries.” Climate Action Tracker. Accessed May 27, 2021.

Kemp, John. 2021. “China’s Five-Year Plan Focuses on Energy Security.” Reuters. Accessed May 27, 2021.

Ritchie, Hannah, and Max Roser. 2020. “China: Energy Country Profile.” Our World in Data. Accessed May 27, 2021.

Tan, Xianchun, and Henry Lee. 2017. “Comparative Assessment of China and U.S. Policies to Meet Climate Change Targets.” Harvard Kennedy School. Environment and Natural Resources Program, Belfer Center. Accessed May 27, 2021.

Tardi, Carla. 2021. “The Kyoto Protocol.” Investopedia. Accessed May 25, 2021.

UNCS. 2020. “Each Country’s Share of CO2 Emissions.” Union of Concerned Scientists. Accessed May 27, 2021.

Xie, John. 2021. “China on Track to Supplant US as Top Nuclear Energy Purveyor.” VOA News. Accessed May 27, 2021.

0 comments on “The Largest Emitters: China and the U.S.Add yours →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Accessibility Toolbar