Major carbon cuts possible if US and China just learned from each other

If the world’s two biggest polluters, the US and China, were to adopt best practice in buildings, transport and the other main carbon emitters they could between them close the 2020 emissions gap by 23%, a new study says.

Even by just adopting best practice from each other they could beat their own 2030 reduction targets by up to 20%.

The study found that the average US citizen consumes four times more electricity than the average Chinese citizen, and occupies twice the floorspace. Residential building energy use is three times higher in the US than in China, and car ownership is ten times higher in the US.

The US and China produce 35% of global emissions– Bill Hare, Climate Analytics

In their latest Climate Action Tracker update, research organisations Climate Analytics, Ecofys and the Pik Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research have compared the actions of both China and the US on climate change.

They looked at the actions of both countries in their most energy-intensive sectors: buildings, transport, electricity production, and industry.

"The US and China produce 35% of global emissions and have been making efforts to work with each other on climate change. If they scaled up action to adopt the most ambitious policies from across the world, they would both be on the right pathway to keep warming below 2 degrees C," said Bill Hare of Climate Analytics.

"This needs to include dramatically reducing their use of coal, in order to achieve the deep decarbonisation needed of getting C02 emissions from coal back to 1990 levels by 2030."

Dr Niklas Höhne, of Ecofys, said the sectoral comparisons for both countries produced results showing there were lessons to be learned by both.

"We looked at how well both the US and China would do if they each adopted a ‘best of the two’ practice in electricity production, industry, buildings and transport. We found this, alone, would set them in a better direction," said Höhne. "They could both learn from each other in most sectors."

If they did this, in relative terms, China could reduce emissions from its current policy projections by 1.2% in 2020 and 20% in 2030 – and 3.2% and 16% for the US.

But going for global best practice, together, the two countries would reduce emissions in 2020 by 2.8 GtCO2e/a below current policy projections and thus close 23% of the emissions gap. In 2030, the reductions would be of 6.7 GtCO2e/a, or 10% below the Climate Action Tracker global current policy projections.

The sectoral comparisons included these findings:

  • The average US citizen currently consumes four times more electricity than an average Chinese citizen. Both governments have managed to reduce their emissions for electricity produced, but they are still both expected to deploy more coal capacity in the future than is compatible with a 2ËšC warming limit. If they were both to increase their share of renewable generation at 1.3% per year (the average trend since 2005 in Germany or the UK), that would make a difference.
  • Floor space per inhabitant is roughly twice in the US compared to China, with building energy use in the residential sector three times higher in the US than in China. The difference is decreasing as floor space and specific energy consumption is significantly increasing in China. However, again, if both were to move to EU standards, this would produce massive reductions.
  • China has more efficient cement plants than the US, whereas the US has more efficient iron and steel plants. Both can improve significantly to reach currently best available technology.
  • Car ownership is ten times as high in the USA compared to China, but the difference is declining. In addition, China has still lower emissions per car. Both countries implement vehicle emissions standards; those of China are slightly stronger. However, if both were to move to global best practice (e.g. emission standard for cars as in the EU, increase of share of electric cars as in Norway) there could be a major difference.

Download the report here.

Story for GCR? Get in touch via email: [email protected]

Latest articles in Perspectives