A new study led by the University of East Anglia (UEA) has found that China’s carbon emissions may continue to decline if efforts to modify the country’s industrial structure and energy system persist.
“Both emissions and their underlying drivers will need to be carefully monitored, 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,” said study co-lead author Dr. Jing Meng.
China pledged to peak its CO2 emissions by 2030 as part of the Paris Agreement. This commitment may already be fulfilled, as China’s CO2 emissions peaked in 2013 at a level of 9.5 Gigatons and declined for the next three consecutive years.
The researchers determined that a decline in economic growth has made it easier for China to reduce emissions in recent years, after almost two decades of a steady and rapid rise in emissions.
According to the study, the decline of 4.2 percent in the years since 2016 can be primarily attributed to changes in industrial structure and a decline in the share of coal used for energy. Decreasing energy and emissions intensity also contributed to the decline.
The study authors said that the emissions peak raises some important questions about what is driving the current decrease and whether or not the decline can be sustained or even accelerated. If China’s falling emissions are primarily the result of a slowing economy, an economic boost could reverse the decrease.
The team set out to investigate by evaluating the major drivers of China’s CO2 emissions from 2007 to 2016. The researchers used the latest available energy, economic, and industry data.
The analysis revealed that China’s emissions may fluctuate in the coming years and 2013 may not be the last official peak. In fact, preliminary figures for 2017 have shown an increase in emissions.
On the other hand, the changes in industrial activities, coal use, and efficiency responsible for the decline are tied to changes in the structure of China’s economy and long-term government policies.
Co-lead author Dabo Guan is a professor of Climate Change Economics in the UEA’s School of International Development and Environmental Sciences.
“As the world’s top emitting and manufacturing nation, this reversal is cause for cautious optimism among those seeking to stabilize the Earth’s climate,” said Professor Guan. “Now, the important question is whether the decline in Chinese emissions will persist.”
“We conclude that the decline of Chinese emissions is structural and is likely to be sustained if the growing industrial and energy system transitions continue. Government policies are also a sign that the decline in China’s emissions will carry on.”
“In response to the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, China has increasingly assumed a leadership role in climate change mitigation, and its five-year progress reports under the agreement will be heavily scrutinized by the rest of the world.”
The research is published in the journal Nature Geoscience.