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China's Per Capita CO2 Emissions Are Now Greater Than Europe's

Robert Wilson's picture
, University of Strathclyde

Robert Wilson is a PhD Student in Mathematical Ecology at the University of Strathclyde.

  • Member since 2018
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  • Jan 22, 2014

China Emissions Growth

John Maynard Keynes once said something rather famous about changing your mind when the facts change. This advice, while sound, is not easy for all of us to follow. Some can go decades without checking to see if new facts contradict their beliefs. A few of course can go their entire lives. Consider media coverage of the German Green Party’s proposal that there should be a “meat free” day at public canteens.  The image of Germans as voracious meat eaters appears to be fixed into our perceptions. However all decent statistics of per capita meat consumption show that Germany is now a middle ranking European country as far as the ingestion of beef, pork and chicken is concerned.

The same is very true for the inability of people to keep up with the rapid growth of both energy consumption and carbon emissions in China. Here is a quote from a story in this week’s Guardian newspaper:

“The newly wealthy elites of China, India and Brazil are flying more, buying more cars and otherwise fuelling the consumption that is driving climate change. But their per capita greenhouse gas emissions are still below those in America and Europe – a gap that China and India regularly cite at climate talks to deflect pressure to cut emissions.”

When challenged on Twitter whether it was actually true that China’s per capita emissions were lower than Europe’s the author of the piece responded “No contest.” The contest however appears to be rather closely fought. Let’s compare China’s per capita carbon dioxide emissions in 2012 with those in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, and the EU as a whole. Below are the 2012 estimates from the EDGAR database.


Instead of there being “no contest”, China’s per capita carbon dioxide emissions, at 7.1 tonnes, are only marginally lower than the EU average, at 7.4 tonnes. And they already are higher than France, Italy and Spain’s. China’s CO2 emissions are also rising by over 6 per cent each year, while the EU’s are falling. Therefore we can be highly confident that China will overtake the EU in per capita emissions either last year or next year. We can also be fairly certain that it will overtake the United Kingdom in per capita emissions this year In fact by the end of the decade per capita carbon dioxide emissions will be higher in China than in almost every European country, on current trends.

For various reasons people ignore the rapid growth of China’s carbon emissions – parochialism, an unwillingness to admit that the West alone cannot “save the world”, or a fear that climate change “skeptics” can use it as a talking point . However the facts are the facts.

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Jan 22, 2014


There is a lot of good work in this field. See in particular that done by Glen Peters and others.

Summarising things a bit: China’s would go down 20%, while Europe’s might go up 10% or so. This varies a great deal by country. In some respects it’s down to how rapidly countries have de-industrialised. The UK for example has more or less exported all of the carbon emissions it has supposedly .

These numbers of course are open to a lot of interpretation.

However even after factoring this in China’s should exceed Europe’s within a couple of years because of how rapidly they are growing.

Lindsay Wilson's picture
Lindsay Wilson on Jan 22, 2014

The thing I always find remarkable is the post 2000 boom.  I know about the construction, export and power booms, but the numbers still always seem remarkable:

Glen Peters does indeed quantify the outsourcing.  From memory it is about 1.5 Gt CO2 total, 400 Mt for both EU27 and the US

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Jan 22, 2014

I have an upcoming post on the boom in cement making in China. Those numbers are almost literally unbelievable. What’s most impressive in that case is what the numbers are on a per capita basis. China’s per capita cement consumption is now 4 times higher than America’s ever was.

Outsourcing of course is an important issue. A problem however is an over willingness to focus on this when discussing China. This is exemplified by the Guardian piece I linked to. The growth of China is just put into a western context. All of this really demonstrates is that the journalist isn’t acting like a journalist, but like an activist constructing a narrative to influence politics. It also reflects a certain provincial attitude, and an unwillingness to admit just how much things have changed. A simple comparison: in 2000 the US emitted almost 2 times more CO2 than China. By 2020 China will almost certainly emit two times more. Yet almost all public discussion of climate starts with the assumption that the US is number one.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 24, 2014

Robert, EIA estimates China’s CO2 emissions increasing at only 2.1% annually.

To what do you attribute the discrepancy with the EDGAR figure?


Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Jan 24, 2014


The EIA’s figure is a forecast of average annual increase over the period 2010-2040. I was referring to China’s current rate of increase which is over 6%. I would not take the EIA’s forecasts very seriously either. Historically these predictions are incredibly inaccurate, even within 5 years.

Peter Shepherd's picture
Peter Shepherd on Jan 24, 2014

Hello Robert,

To describe atmospheric equity fairly you need to include reference to the historic emissions used to create existing national systems. Just taking a snapshot as you’ve done favours already-developed countries.

Would you agree that we’re a quarter century past legitimately claiming ignorance of the damage this will cause? What is the effect of our continuing to claim ignorance (implicit if we omit any fraction of historical responsibility, either this recent ‘mens rea’, or consequentialist approach to our total displacement of equitable fraction of atmospheric sinks?) on the attitude of citizens in the less-developed world, toward our collective need to reduce emissions?

Your confidence is I think excessive and recklessly provocative toward citizens in lesser-developed countries. 

Three graphics:

1. :

Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Jan 24, 2014


I am not really sure what you are trying to demonstrate with your third graph. It is just a less up to date version of the numbers I quoted, is it not? The second is also of little specifc relevance to the issue of China and Europe’s per capita emissions. You really should explain the link here.

And I have absolutely no idea why you are saying I am being recklessly provocative towards the citizens of less developed countries. All I did was state the fact that China’s per capita emissions are now at the European level. And excessive confidence? Again, I don’t really know you are referring to.

However, on historic emissions. Contrary to what you are saying blaming countries for historic emissions is deeply problematic from an ethical point of view. Why for example should we hold present day Germans responsible what Germans did a century ago? Should South Korea have a bigger carbon budget than Britain simply because it industrialised after the Korean War? This is actually a very Old Testament form of morality, that I thought the Englightenment had partially got rid off. However it seems that when it comes to climate change it is alive and well in the minds of some.

Peter Shepherd's picture
Peter Shepherd on Jan 31, 2014

Your graph selected the EU out of the OECD-America’s combined per capita emissions to make Chinese emissions look comparable to the West’s per capita as a whole, which they are not.

You also selected a very short time period to focus on, and discount the carbon it takes to build existing societies.

Instead of trying to blame other nations for a collective energy problem, I think it’s better to apply your math to work on practical solutions rather than set up us-and-them problematizing scenarios. Is “Clash of Civilizations” really that interesting a narrative or history we want to repeat?

Why not look at what China’s doing right in solar & wind, and where their market in those areas will be as fossil fuel supplies get lower.  The Chinese are naturally more interested in cleaning up local air pollution than climate change, though the NOX creates O3 which is a GHG that twins with water to make for local warming, interesting contrasts between Chicago & Atlanta on this effect, even though Chicago has worse smog, Atlanta’s local climate warming is greater due to location, so climate mitigation will also come through dealing with local air pollution, see John Bowman’s work at Jet Propulsion Lab and Caltech. That could be a neat angle when looking at cement production in China – do they have good scrubbers for NOX on cement plants? Drought is an ongoing issue for them, and they are well aware of the climate threat to increase it,

There’s no shortage of mathematical modelling you can do in those areas, and it might draw people together rather than drive nations apart.

I’ve met two delegations of Chinese working on climate change issues,  and they were both far more constructive than your portrayal of that country makes out. The first were low-level bureaucrats from the North East, where there was a drought, & were interested in how ENGO’s lobby governments to act on climate change, and the second was exchanging plans for straw-bale building. In China straw bale is an excellent option, as they have 2/3″s greater deforestation than the average country world-wide, so stick-framing isn’t an option. Neither is concrete, as it’s too energy-intensive. Mining for clay to build brick houses disturbs too much farmland. Therefore straw is an ideal solution if they can keep good overhangs & permeable plasters to allow the straw to dry out.

All the delegates were constructive and happy to exchange information in a non-competitive manner.



Robert Wilson's picture
Robert Wilson on Feb 1, 2014


I really have no idea where you get your ideas from. What makes you think I am promoting a “clash of civilizations” framing of climate change? You seem to be tossing accusations in my direction, which are purely drawn from a prejudicial reading of a short piece I have written.

You could for example just take a quick look through what I have written here at Energy Collective, and you will find an extensive piece I wrote on China’s steel production, which should make clear I am aware of and discuss these development issues. You can also find a piece I wrote only two weeks ago on how looking at carbon emissions purely on a national basis is problematic. Instead you just seem to make assumptions about how I see the world based purely on your own prejudices. I don’t find having my views misrepresented in this way particularly appealing.

And please, there is no need to provide me with condescending career advice.

Peter Shepherd's picture
Peter Shepherd on Feb 1, 2014


According to CDIAC,, China’s per capita emissions ranked #63 in 2010, , while the US’s were at #12, Australia #14, Canada #18,  Russia #22, Norway #24, Finland #26, Netherlands #29, Czech Republic #30, Belgium #34, Germany #39, Ireland #40, Denmark #42, Poland #43, U.K. #47, Italy #57, Slovakia #60.

For a more current estimate see , per capita by state:

Divided up per person, each country’s share of the world’s emissions looks a little different. Australia had the highest per capita emissions in 2012 at 18.8 tonnes. In the US, emissions per capita were 16.4 tonnes, and just behind came oil-rich Saudi Arabia with per capita emissions of 16.2 tonnes.

The EU and China – both major emitters in absolute terms – had much smaller per capita emissions, at 7.4 and 7.1 tonnes respectively.


Physicist Al Rodger has a good graph linked in Comment #3 to the above post, that shows the USA alone occupying 95 GT of the global carbon sink vs 35 GT for China.  You may think historic emissions are discountable, but there are 1.36 billion Chinese who may disagree, and be very annoyed by those who presume that they do not matter, as they’ve lived most of their lives with far smaller per capita footprints than yours or mine. How would you see it if you were Chinese instead of a British/EU citizen?

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