On Chinese vs US greenhouse gas emissions

The following thought experiment is based on 2018 statistics, which are the latest that I could find (so when I say “current,” I am referring to 2018 values).

[Updated below] Analysis and commentary in US public media most often compare the total greenhouse gas emissions (CO2e) of China and the US, abstracting from the fact that China has more than 4 times the population of the US. (Also typically left out of such commentary is the enormous historical contribution by the US to CO2e in the atmosphere.) From this misleading standpoint, one constantly is reminded that China emits more than twice as much CO2e as the US. 

But from a per capita standpoint — the only rational way to compare the two countries with respect to their contribution to climate change — China emits less than half as much CO2e as the US.

Even if the US lowers its emissions by 40% compared to 2005 levels — the optimistic estimate based on implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 — its per capita emissions would still be 27% higher than China’s current emissions, per capita.

In fact, the US would need to lower its current emissions (which are already 10% lower than its 2005 emissions) by an additional 48% just to match China’s current per capita emissions.

Here are my calculations, and sources:

2018 per capita total greenhouse gas emissions (CO2 equivalent or CO2e)

  • US: 18.44 metric tons of CO2e per capita
  • China: 8.87 metric tons of CO2e per capita

2018 population

  • US: 327,096,265
  • China: 1,427,647,786

2018 Total emission

  • US: 6,030 x 106 metric tons of CO2e
  • China: 12,663 x 106 metric tons of CO2e

Amount of US emissions if made to equal China’s per capita rate

  • 8.87 x 327,096,265 = 2,901 x 106 metric tons of CO2e

Percent reduction in US 2018 emissions to equal China’s 2018 per capita emissions

  • (2,901 / 6,030) x 100 = 48%

Other calculations:

  • “The goal of the [Inflation Reduction] bill is to put the country [US] on a path to reduce greenhouse gasses by 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.” (source)
  • “From 2005 to 2018, net US emissions declined 10 percent” (EPA Data highlights)
  • Therefore 2005 US emissions were 6,700 x 106 metric tons of CO2e.
  • Therefore, the 2030 US goal of emissions 40% below 2005 levels sets a target of 4,020 x 106 metric tons of CO2e.
  • Assuming a 2030 US Census projected population of 355,100,000, the per capital goal for 2030 US emissions is 4,020 x 106 / 355,100,000 = 11.32 metric tons of CO2e per capita.
  • This is substantially higher than the current (2018) Chinese per capita emissions of 8.87 metric tons of CO2e per capita.

Updated 16 September 2022: Here is a typical and egregious example of how China is portrayed in US media as “the world’s largest climate polluter” even though its per capita contribution to CO2 is much less than that of the US and, in fact, lower than that of 41 other nations (according to 2016 data).

From David Wallace-Wells, “China Is Writing the Story of the Climate Future,” NY Times, Sept. 14, 2022: “China is not just the world’s largest climate polluter but is responsible now for about half of all global coal use and almost a third of all global carbon emissions — a growing share, and more than twice the American contribution. (Though on a per-capita basis, the United States is still doing much worse.)”

The article does disclose that “on a per-capita basis, the United States is still doing much worse,” but only as a parenthetical remark, as if this admission can be taken as not particularly important.

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