For U.S. and China, World’s Biggest Climate Polluters, It’s Still Business as Usual

Despite claims of concern over climate change and progress toward cleaner economies, the trajectory of their CO2 emissions is not bending down fast enough.

State-owned Xuanwei Power Station in Xuanwei, Yunnan province in China
State-owned Xuanwei Power Station in Xuanwei, Yunnan province in China/Credit: Greenpeace

Share this article

China and the United States, the world’s two largest economies, are responsible for emitting nearly half the planet’s carbon dioxide emissions. China overtook the United States in 2006 as the world’s biggest CO2 polluter due to its hardening coal addiction. Per capita, however, America’s carbon footprint is far bigger.

Both countries still have large fleets of coal plants and growing, but relatively tiny, renewable electricity sectors. Both have goals for lowering their global warming emissions—though none would match the scale of the climate threat. Scientists say the world’s output of greenhouse gases must peak around 2016, and then decline to stop at the critical 2-degree Celsius temperature increase by century’s end. Projections show both countries’ emissions will peak sometime after the mid-2030s.

Using the latest figures available, InsideClimate News culled federal and international energy data to tell the story of the world’s two biggest polluters.

►China’s population is four times larger than the United States’, and its emissions are close to double in size. But the average American is still responsible for twice as much greenhouse gas pollution as his or her Chinese counterpart.

►China and the United States have nearly the same amount of installed electricity capacity, though in China it’s nearly all coal-fired. China’s massive coal stations, many of them built in the past decade, together have more than double the capacity of U.S. coal facilities. And while the United States currently has plans to add 36 new coal plants, China intends to add ten times that amount.

►The two countries’ renewable energy fleets are nearly identical in size. Some of China’s wind and solar capacity, however, is not connected to the grid, giving the United States the edge when it comes to actual clean power generation. But China is chasing a federal goal of 15 percent non-fossil fuel generation by 2020, and the United States has no such policy.