The Relationship Between Economic Growth and Carbon Dioxide in China

The Relationship Between Economic Growth and Carbon Dioxide in China


R. Kitagawa


INNER MONGOLIA, CHINA – NOVEMBER 03: A Chinese labourer unloads waste coal and stone as smoke and steam rises next to an unauthorized steel factory on November 3, 2016 in Inner Mongolia, China. To meet China’s targets to slash emissions of carbon dioxide, authorities are pushing to shut down privately owned steel, coal, and other high-polluting factories scattered across rural areas. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

The Big Picture:

When it comes to cutting the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming, the world isn’t just failing – we’re stepping our foot on the gas pedal.

Scientists reported in a series of studies that global emissions of greenhouse gases from fossil fuels are likely to hit record levels in 2018. Much of this growth is due to China, which is erasing optimism from just a few years ago that some countries’ emissions might be peaking. Elsewhere,virtually no country is reducing emissions fast enough to balance out the growth.

The emissions are growing by a best estimate of 2.7% globally compared to 2017, according to the reports by the Global Carbon Project, which studies the carbon cycle and closely tracks emissions worldwide.

China at a Glance:

  • China’s massive increases have been driven by continued coal use and economic growth
  • China is expected to see an estimated 4.7% increase in emissions for 2018
  • China emits more carbon dioxide than the United States and the European Union combined
  • World’s largest exporter of goods
  • World’s second largest importer of merchandise goods

What is Carbon Dioxide? Why is it Bad? 

Image Courtesy: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Greenhouse gases trap heat and make the planet warmer. Human activities are responsible for almost all of the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere over the last 150 years. The largest source of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities in the United States is from burning fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation.

The primary sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States are:

  • Transportation (28.9 percent of 2017 greenhouse gas emissions) – The transportation sector generates the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gas emissions from transportation primarily come from burning fossil fuel for our cars, trucks, ships, trains, and planes
  • Electricity production (27.5 percent of 2017 greenhouse gas emissions) – Electricity production generates the second largest share of greenhouse gas emissions. Approximately 62.9 percent of China’s electricity comes from burning fossil fuels, mostly coal and natural gas
  • Industry (22.2 percent of 2017 greenhouse gas emissions) – Greenhouse gas emissions from industry primarily come from burning fossil fuels for energy, as well as greenhouse gas emissions from certain chemical reactions necessary to produce goods from raw materials.
  • Commercial and Residential (11.6 percent of 2017 greenhouse gas emissions) – Greenhouse gas emissions from businesses and homes arise primarily from fossil fuels burned for heat, the use of certain products that contain greenhouse gases, and the handling of waste.
  • Agriculture (9.0 percent of 2017 greenhouse gas emissions) – Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture come from livestock such as cows, agricultural soils, and rice production.
  • Land Use and Forestry ( 11.1 percent of 2017 greenhouse gas emissions) – Land areas can act as a sink (absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere) or a source of greenhouse gas emissions.

What is Particulate Matter 2.5? Is it Harmful? 

The term fine particles, or particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5), refers to tiny particles or droplets in the air that are two and one half microns or less in width. Like inches, meters and miles, a micron is a unit of measurement for distance. There are about 25,000 microns in an inch. The widths of the larger particles in the PM2.5 size range would be about thirty times smaller than that of a human hair. The smaller particles are so small that several thousand of them could fit on the period at the end of this sentence.

Particles in the PM2.5 size range are able to travel deeply into the respiratory tract, reaching the lungs. Exposure to fine particles can cause short-term health effects such as eye, nose, throat and lung irritation, coughing, sneezing, runny nose and shortness of breath. Exposure to fine particles can also affect lung function and worsen medical conditions such as asthma and heart disease. Scientific studies have linked increases in daily PM2.5 exposure with increased respiratory and cardiovascular hospital admissions, emergency department visits and deaths. Studies also suggest that long term exposure to fine particulate matter may be associated with increased rates of chronic bronchitis, reduced lung function and increased mortality from lung cancer and heart disease. People with breathing and heart problems, children and the elderly may be particularly sensitive to PM2.5.

PM 2.5 concentration (an average of the four models) and related deaths of China.

So… Are Carbon Emissions and Gross Domestic Product Co-integrated Variables?

China’s challenge in addressing climate change is the same as it ever was. It relies heavily on coal to power its rapidly growing economy.

The factory of the world, more than two-thirds of China’s emissions come from electricity generation and industry, which includes both manufacturing and construction. These sectors rely heavily on coal, which accounted for approximately 70 percent of China’s emissions in 2016.

Today, China uses more coal than the rest of the world combined. At one point, more coal was consumed within 400 miles of Beijing than in the entire U.S. Unsurprisingly, the 2018 increase largely comes from industry and power plants.

Aside from reliance on coal, China’s carbon emissions are driven by the speed of its economic growth. Studies often demonstrate that this growth is the single biggest factor influencing China’s energy use.

Growth in China’s greenhouse gas emissions began to slow down around 2011. Emissions stayed flat between 2013 and 2016 but started to rise again in 2017.

Changes Afoot

If China’s economy is going to continue to grow rapidly for the foreseeable future, is there any hope in the war against climate change?

I believe that the answer is “yes, but it depends.” Chiefly, China’s success in lowering emissions rests on how fast it can change its energy and economic structures.

President Xi Jinping and premier Li Keqiang started talking about a “new normal” and an “ecological civilisation”, emphasising lower but higher-quality growth. They drew up plans to shift the growth model from heavy industry and export to domestic consumption, innovation, advanced technologies and generally moving up in the value chain.

The government has faced public pressure to improve air and water quality following decades of dirty growth, which is tightly linked to greenhouse gas emissions. And in addition to pushing the shift toward cleaner industries, China is also enacting a national CO2 emissions trading scheme this year.

“Both emissions and their underlying drivers will need to be carefully monitored,” the researchers write, “but the fact that China’s emissions have decreased for several years—and more importantly the reasons why—give hope for further decreases going forward.”

Image: REUTERS/Stringer

Works Cited

China top coal province sets out consolidation plan. (2017, January 09). Retrieved from

Guest post: China’s CO2 emissions grew slower than expected in 2018. (2019, March 08). Retrieved from

Johnson, S. K. (2018, July 05). Energy shifts could mean China’s carbon emissions are done growing. Retrieved from

Roach, S. S., Jackson Institute of Global Affairs, & Yale University. (n.d.). The Chinese economy is slowing down – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Retrieved from

Wang, Q., Wang, J., He, M. Z., Kinney, P. L., & Li, T. (2018). A county-level estimate of PM 2.5 related chronic mortality risk in China based on multi-model exposure data. Environment International,110, 105-112. doi:10.1016/j.envint.2017.10.015