Greenhouse Gas Emissions: A Tale of Two Countries

China’s greenhouse gas emissions are skyrocketing. In comparison U.S. emissions are almost flat. Well, maybe not.

The Copenhagen climate negotiations are approaching, and countries including China and the United States are announcing their intended contributions to a global treaty. (See Beijing’s announced intentions here, Washington’s here.)

A lot of the debate will focus on:

  • which countries are responsible for past and present carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions,
  • whose emissions will grow the fastest in the coming decades, and
  • who should do the most to curtail emissions.

Lest we get too carried away in finger-pointing, consider the fact that we live in a global community. Now let’s look at two global hotspots.

Total Annual Chinese CO2 Emissions*:

1987: 2,010
2001: 3,290
2005: 5,030

Impressive. In 2005 Chinese emissions had increased by about 50 percent relative to 2001 and a whopping 150 percent relative to 1987.

But …

Chinese Emissions to Produce Products for Export:

1987: 230 (12% of total emissions)
2001: 800 (24% of total emissions)
2005: 1,700 (33% of total emissions)

Even more impressive, emissions for exports from China increased by more than 600 percent between 1987 and 2005. To put this into perspective, the emissions from Chinese exports in 2005 are more than the combined emissions of the United Kingdom and Germany.

Now let’s see what’s been happening in the U.S.A.

Total U.S. CO2 Emissions:

1987: 4,790
2001: 5,760
2004: 5,970

Relatively modest increases. Emissions in 2004 were four percent larger relative to 2001 and 25 percent larger relative to 1987. A far cry from China, right? Before we get too self-satisfied, consider this…

Emissions Embedded in Products Imported Into the United States:

1987: ~ 150 (3% of total in-country emissions)
2001: ~ 950 (16% of total in-country emissions)
2004: ~ 1,400 (23% of total in-country emissions)

Our emissions from imports grew by more than 800 percent between 1987 and 2004 and are growing far faster than our in-country emissions. Counting emissions from imports, total U.S. emissions between 2001 and 2004 grew by 10 percent instead of four percent. Not quite so flat after all.

And who is the major source of those embedded emissions? China, of course. Roughly 30 percent of China’s export emissions are embedded in products destined for U.S. shores. Given China’s much higher carbon intensity, that also means those imports produced more CO2 emissions item per item than had those products been made in the U.S.A.

It’s a conundrum. Who is responsible for the emissions from our imports? Is it China? Is it America? My answer is “yes, it’s both.” What’s to be done about it?

How about putting a price on carbon? Such a move would level the emissions playing field and, by increasing the costs of carbon-intensive products, may even help bring our balance of payments into better balance. Even a fiscal conservative would like that.


End Note:

*All numbers are expressed in millions of tons of carbon dioxide.


Brian Angliss, “U.S. offshores 15% of its carbon emissions, not 20% as originally stated,” Scholars & Rogues blog,, February 6, 2009.

U.S. Emissions Data – Energy Information Administration.

Glen P. Peters and Edgar G. Hertwich, “CO2 Embodied in International Trade with Implications for Global Climate Policy,” Environmental Science & Technology, 2008, 42 (5), pp. 1401–1407.

Christopher Weber and H. Scott Matthews, “Embodied Environmental Emissions in U.S. International Trade, 1997−2004,” Environmental Science & Technology, 2007, 41 (14), pp. 4875–4881.

Christopher L. Weber, Glen P. Peters, Dabo Guan and Klaus Hubacek; “The Contribution of Chinese Exports to Climate Change,” Energy Policy, Vol. 36, Issue 9, September 2008, pp. 3572-3577.

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