China’s contribution to climate change

November 28, 2019
China is the world's largest emitter of carbon dioxide.

China is the world's largest emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2). It surpassed the United States in 2006, according to the Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR) database created by the European Commission and the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. On a per capita basis, China’s emission levels are less than half those of the US, according to EDGAR.

One contributing factor to the rise of China's emissions is the fact that transnational corporations (TNCs) based in the US and other rich countries have shifted much of their production to China. For example, Apple iPhones are produced in China. It could be argued that the emissions from such production should be included in the figures for the countries where the TNCs are based, rather than China.

But even allowing for this, China is a big contributor to CO2 emissions. China now has its own giant corporations such as Huawei and Great Wall. Chinese investment in other countries is expanding. Much of it is aimed at obtaining raw materials for China's industry, and is causing environmental destruction in the source countries.

A few years ago it looked as if China might be taking serious steps to rein in its emissions. Renewable energy was being rapidly expanded. Some coal-fired power stations were shut down (mainly those near big cities, where smoke was adding to the air pollution problem).

But new coal-fired power stations continue to be built. According to Global Energy Monitor, 148 gigawatts of coal-fired power stations are either being built or about to begin construction. This is equivalent to the entire current capacity of the European Union.

This new construction is occurring despite the fact that the Chinese electricity grid is oversupplied and power stations are working at only half their capacity. This irrational situation is a result of Chinese energy companies competing for market share with no overall plan.

Meanwhile, there has been a rapid growth in car production in China, which now has the biggest car sales in the world.

Military spending is also growing, resulting in increased consumption of oil by planes, warships, tanks and other military vehicles.

China today is a capitalist country. It is highly unequal. On the one hand, it has the second highest number of billionaires in the world, after the US, according to a survey by the Swiss bank UBS and accounting firm PWC. On the other, it has hundreds of millions of low-paid workers, many of them producing goods for transnational corporations.

However, China still has a relatively strong state-owned sector of the economy.

In the years following the 1949 revolution, existing privately-owned factories were nationalised and new state-owned enterprises (SOEs) were created. Many SOEs were privatised or shut down in the 1990s, but some key sectors of industry were kept under state ownership.

China's industrialisation was largely fuelled by coal, both during the period when all industry was state-owned and during the period of growing private ownership. The growth of production for the world market has led to a further expansion of coal use, as well as chemical pollution of land and water.

The growth of pollution led to numerous protests by affected people, resulting in pressure on the government to solve environmental problems. China was also under pressure in international forums to limit its CO2 emissions.

The government took steps to reduce the burning of coal in or near big cities. It promoted the rapid expansion of renewable energy. High speed rail was built as an alternative to car or plane travel between cities.

But it was not enough. CO2 emissions are still growing, even if more slowly than before. Capitalism cannot solve the climate crisis, and Chinese capitalism is no exception.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.