China is set to overtake the United States as the leading cause of modern global warming at some point within the next two years, a dangerous benchmark for a country that’s also aiming to curb its dependence on coal.
China is already the top emitter of greenhouse gases, having surpassed the United States in 2006, but two separate estimates now indicate that its cumulative emissions since 1990 are on pace to exceed those of the United States, which would make China the largest contributor to modern climate change.
According to Reuters, the Norway-based Center for International Climate and Environmental Research estimates that China’s cumulative emissions since 1990 will overtake the United States’ this year. Using “slightly different data,” the U.S.-based think tank World Resources Institute (WRI) estimates China’s cumulative emissions will surpass the United States’ in 2016. According to the WRI, China’s 1990-2016 emissions will reach 151 billion tons in 2016, while the U.S. will total 147 billion.
In November, China pledged to begin reducing its carbon emissions by 2030, the same year that it promised to get at least a fifth of its power from renewable sources. One of the biggest hurdles to cutting emissions in China has been coal, which for years has fueled its growing economy.
But even as China is poised to become the largest cumulative emitter of greenhouse gases since 1990, it’s beginning to show signs of curbing its dependence on coal, which currently supplies 70 percent of its energy. In the first three months of 2015, China’s coal imports fell 42 percent from last year — an especially notable drop considering that just two years ago, China imported more coal in a single year than any other country in history.
Some of that drop can be attributed to China’s slowing economy, which is growing at its slowest rate in 25 years. But stronger environmental regulations have also begun to take their toll on China’s coal use, as government agencies are beginning to encourage industries to move away from coal as an energy source.
According to the Guardian, China’s national development commission said in their annual report that they would begin creating policies aimed at reducing coal consumption, and would work to limit the number of energy-intensive projects developed in heavily polluted areas. As part of the U.S.-China climate agreement, China promised to cap its coal use by 2020 — though government officials have said they think it could happen much sooner.
In 2014, China’s coal consumption declined by 2.9 percent, the first time it dropped in the 21st century. And in late March, Beijing announced that it would close the last of its coal plants, reducing the city’s coal use by 9.2 million metric tons.
As coal use drops, and China’s economy continues to languish, the country might look to green jobs for a boost. According to the China Daily, China recently eased bond rules for seven “key investment sectors,” including clean energy projects. The deputy director of China’s National Development and Reform Commission has said that the seven investment areas are a clear indication of the country’s “direction for future investment,” and signals a commitment to more sustainable economic growth. In 2014, China spent $83.3 billion on renewable energy, the largest investment of any country that year.