China’s Fight Against Climate Change and Environmental Degradation

China’s Fight Against Climate Change and Environmental Degradation

China’s carbon emissions threaten global efforts to fight climate change. Its broader environmental degradation endangers economic growth, public health, and government legitimacy. Are Beijing’s policies enough?
Workers try to clear algae from a polluted lake in Anhui Province.
Workers try to clear algae from a polluted lake in Anhui Province. TPG/Getty Images
  • China is the world’s top emitter, producing more than a quarter of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to climate change.
  • It pledged to cut emissions under the Paris Agreement, reduce coal use, and invest in renewable energy. But its Belt and Road Initiative still finances coal-fired power plants abroad. 
  • Air pollution, water scarcity, and soil contamination remain threats to the health and livelihoods of China’s people, increasing dissatisfaction with the government.


China’s environmental crisis, the result of decades of rapid industrialization, not only threatens the health and livelihoods of the country’s 1.4 billion people but also the global fight against climate change. As the world’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in recent years, China suffers from notoriously bad air pollution. Its carbon-intensive industries have caused additional environmental challenges, including water scarcity and soil contamination. And, like the rest of the world, China will face increasingly harsh consequences of climate change in the coming decades, including flooding and droughts. 

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In response, Beijing has implemented policies to curb emissions and stem further degradation, such as by signing the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate and pledging to be carbon neutral by 2060. However, following through won’t be easy, experts say, as the government struggles to maintain economic growth; ease public discontent; and overcome tensions with the United States, the second-largest emitter.

How high are China’s greenhouse gas emissions?

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China’s economic rise—national gross domestic product (GDP) grew 10 percent on average each year for more than a decade—has greatly accelerated its emissions. In the past ten years, China has emitted more greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, per year than any other country in the world. It surpassed the United States as the top emitter in 2005, according to Climate Watch. (Emissions per capita in the United States are still more than double those in China.)

Coal, which makes up nearly two-thirds of China’s energy consumption, is largely to blame. The country is the world’s largest coal producer and accounts for about half of coal consumed globally. The government banned the construction of new coal-fired power plants in 2016, and coal use appeared to decline. However, when the ban expired in 2018, construction of new plants ramped up again. In 2020, China built over three times more [PDF] new coal-power capacity than the rest of the world combined, according to Global Energy Monitor and the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air. 

China’s staggering pace of urbanization has also contributed. Urbanization increases energy demands to power new manufacturing and industrial centers, and construction of these centers relies on high energy–consuming products such as cement and steel. Another contributor is the increase in cars on the road: In 2018, people in China owned 240 million vehicles, up from about 27 million in 2004.

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Internationally, China is the largest financier of fossil fuel infrastructure. Through its massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China has built or is planning to build hundreds of coal-fired power plants in countries around the world. More than 60 percent of BRI-specific energy financing has gone toward nonrenewable resources. Greenhouse gas emissions in more than a dozen BRI countries have soared. Researchers found in 2019 that BRI could drive the global average temperature to increase by 2.7°C, significantly higher than the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C.

How is climate change expected to affect China?

Like the rest of the world, China will increasingly suffer over the next few decades from the effects of climate change, which include sea-level rise, stronger storms, and more intense heat waves. China’s average temperature and sea levels have risen faster than the global average, according to a 2020 report from China’s National Climate Center. 

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Some of China’s coastal cities, such as Shanghai, could be submerged if the global average temperature continues to rise. An estimated forty-three million people in China live on land that could be underwater by the end of the century if the global average temperature rises by 2°C. 

Additionally, experts predict that China will experience more frequent extreme weather events, such as heavy rainfall. Every year, natural disasters kill hundreds of Chinese people and destroy millions of acres of crops. As temperatures rise, China’s glaciers will continue to melt at an alarming rate, which will likely lead to more devastating floods. Extreme heat events and droughts will also become more common. 

What is China doing to reduce its emissions?

President Xi Jinping has recognized climate change as one of his administration’s top concerns, and Beijing has made a variety of pledges to address it. These include:

  • achieving carbon neutrality by 2060;
  • reaching peak carbon dioxide emissions before 2030;
  • having renewable energy sources account for 25 percent of total energy consumption by 2030; 
  • reducing carbon intensity, or the amount of carbon emitted per unit of GDP, by more than 65 percent by 2030;
  • installing enough solar and wind power generators to have a combined capacity of 1.2 billion kilowatts by 2030; and,
  • boosting forest coverage by around six billion cubic meters by 2030.

However, experts say many of these goals aren’t ambitious enough and point out that they don’t align with each other or with the Paris Agreement. For example, China would need to reach peak emissions by 2025 at the latest to be in line with the Paris accord’s goal.

Transitioning from coal to renewable energy is critical to China’s efforts, and the country has already made some progress. In 2019, renewables accounted for nearly 15 percent of China’s energy mix, compared to 7 percent a decade earlier. China has used hydropower for years, and it is installing more solar panels and wind power generators as the world’s leading manufacturer of those technologies. It is also boosting its nuclear power capacity, with seventeen reactors under construction as of mid-2021. Moreover, Beijing and some provinces are incentivizing electric vehicle use. In 2020, 1.37 million so-called new energy vehicles—which include battery electric, plug-in hybrid, and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles—were sold in China, a nearly 11 percent increase from the previous year. Still, experts point out that the vast majority of electricity for such vehicles is produced with fossil fuels. 

Like the European Union and several other countries, China is working to launch a national emissions trading scheme, which would force polluters to pay for environmental harm and thus incentivize them to reduce their emissions. It would initially focus on coal- and gas-fired power plants. However, the rollout has been delayed since the scheme was first announced in 2017, and many details remain unclear.

Even if China reaches its domestic goals, its financing of nonrenewable energy projects abroad through BRI could make it “much harder for the planet to curb climate change,” says American University’s Judith Shapiro, coauthor of the book China Goes Green: Coercive Environmentalism for a Troubled Planet. Beijing has attempted to make BRI more environmentally sustainable by announcing environmental standards, but so far these have only been voluntary.

How has China cooperated with the rest of the world on climate change?

China only recently started actively helping to formulate global responses to climate change. For decades, China resisted making commitments under the UN framework. Chinese diplomats argued that China shouldn’t have to sacrifice its economic development for environmental protection and that developed countries, such as the United States, should carry more of the burden because they were able to grow their economies without limitations.

As climate change and environmental degradation became a top priority for the Chinese government, it participated more in global climate talks, eventually becoming “a leader on climate change,” write CFR Fellows Yanzhong Huang and Joshua Kurlantzick. In 2016, China announced its participation in the Paris Agreement, and in the years since, it has ramped up its commitments.

China has been open to working with other countries. Environmental ministers from Japan and South Korea, whose governments have expressed concerns about smog and acid rain that crosses their countries’ borders from China, have held yearly meetings with their Chinese counterparts. The European Union agreed to support China’s implementation of its emissions trading scheme. India, the world’s third-largest emitter, has signed climate agreements with China, but heightened tensions in 2020–21 raised doubts about future collaboration.

Have China and the United States worked together?

Despite deep-seated political and economic tensions, the rivals have worked together in the past and experts see opportunities for future cooperation. Under the Barack Obama administration, the countries expanded collaboration among Chinese and American companies, scientists, and experts on clean energy and carbon-capture technologies. In 2014, they jointly announced commitments to reduce emissions. 

Much of that cooperation stopped under President Donald Trump, who took a confrontational stance toward Beijing and questioned the science of climate change

President Joe Biden, who has committed to reducing U.S. emissions and restoring American leadership on climate change, has said engagement with China is essential. In April 2021, during a visit to Shanghai by Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry, the two countries agreed to make more ambitious pledges under the Paris accord. Days later, Xi participated in a U.S.-hosted virtual climate summit. At the same time, the Biden administration has emphasized competition with Beijing, including aims to boost U.S. clean energy industries in response to China’s dominance in that area.

What other environmental challenges does China face?

Carbon-intensive industries often harm the environment in additional ways. Climate change can further exacerbate environmental challenges, including air pollution, water scarcity, and desertification.

Air pollution. Increased public awareness of China’s notoriously low air quality in the past decade—especially after Beijing suffered a prolonged bout of smog in 2013 that was so severe that citizens dubbed it an “airpocalypse”—has sparked government action. A plan released later in 2013 ordered cities to lower concentrations of tiny hazardous particles known as PM2.5 and directed local governments to implement tougher controls on pollution and coal use. As a result, much of China has seen a significant drop in air pollution. But many regions continue to experience stretches of extreme pollution, and hundreds of mostly northern cities still suffer from high levels of PM2.5.

Water insecurity. China is home to about 20 percent of the world’s population but only 7 percent of its freshwater sources. Overuse has led to severe shortages, and industry along China’s major water sources has polluted supplies. Construction of hydropower dams along major rivers has also damaged ecosystems. The government released a plan in 2015 for preventing water pollution that included placing controls on polluting industries. The quality of surface waters—bodies such as lakes, rivers, and streams—has since improved. However, groundwater continues to fall short of targets, with more than 80 percent categorized as “bad to very bad.” 

Desertification. More than one-quarter of China’s arable land is becoming desert due to the water crisis, negligent farming practices, overgrazing, and the effects of climate change. The government has responded by planting billions of trees, among other measures to increase vegetation. Desertified land is now shrinking on average by nearly one thousand square miles each year, according to government figures.

Soil pollution. The government estimated in 2014 that nearly one-fifth of arable land is contaminated. This has consequences for China’s food security: An estimated 12 million tons of the 664 million tons of grain produced annually are polluted by heavy metals. Chemical factories and other industrial sites are mainly to blame, but trash, electronic waste, rare-earth-metal mining, overuse of pesticides, and contaminated water also contribute. In 2019, China’s first comprehensive law to prevent soil pollution took effect, requiring polluters to limit their output or pay for contamination. Two years later, China banned the import of all waste from other countries. 

Nuclear waste. China has not suffered a nuclear accident in its three decades of operating nuclear power plants, but some experts are concerned [PDF] that the risk will rise as the country ramps up new construction and as existing plants age. 

How does pollution affect China’s population? 

Pollution of the air, water, and soil has major consequences for the health and livelihoods of China’s massive population. It has been linked to acute and chronic disease and preventable death. 

“China cannot regain its greatness in the world if its people continue to breathe polluted air, drink toxic water, and eat tainted food.”
Yanzhong Huang, CFR Senior Fellow for Global Health

Air pollution contributes to an estimated 1.1 million premature deaths in China annually. Epidemiological studies conducted since the 1980s suggest that poor air quality in northern Chinese cities causes significant health complications [PDF], including respiratory, cardiovascular, and cerebrovascular diseases. An estimated sixty thousand people in China die of illnesses caused by water pollution every year.

Moreover, environmental issues cost the economy billions of dollars each year, with some recent estimates putting the toll at up to 10 percent of GDP. The Ministry of Ecology and Environment calculated the cost of pollution to be around 1.5 trillion RMB ($227 billion), or roughly 3.5 percent of GDP, in 2010. (The ministry only releases such figures intermittently.) 

Is this a threat to the Chinese Communist Party? 

CFR’s Huang argues in his book Toxic Politics: China’s Environmental Health Crisis and Its Challenge to the Chinese State that pollution and environmental degradation are among the “biggest obstacles to China’s future economic growth and political stability.” The government’s failure to meaningfully address pollution could lead citizens to question the legitimacy of China’s leaders and political system, he writes. 

Indeed, as public awareness of environmental degradation has increased over the past two decades, public dissatisfaction and the number of petitions and protests have grown. Citizens have organized hundreds of protests, including in the cities of Guangdong, Kunming, Shanghai, and Wuhan. In 2013, the number of “abrupt environmental incidents,” including protests, rose to 712, a 31 percent jump from the previous year. Citizen petitions related to environmental issues increased from 1.05 million in 2011 to 1.77 million in 2015.

Environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have pushed the government to confront problems. Thousands of these groups—domestically based but often working with foreign counterparts—have advocated for transparency, investigated suspected corruption, and led grassroots campaigns. They have had some success, taking advantage of a 2015 law that made it easier to file cases against polluters. 

But the Chinese Communist Party fears activism could catalyze democratic social change, and so has constrained the efforts of organizations, activists, and grassroots movements. For example, a 2016 law made it harder for international NGOs to work in China. Under Xi, the government has shown more resolve to crack down on public dissent, including by arresting activists and censoring documentaries and social media commentary.

The government’s inability to curb pollution could damage China’s international standing, experts say. “China cannot regain its greatness in the world if its people continue to breathe polluted air, drink toxic water, and eat tainted food,” writes Huang.

Recommended Resources

CFR’s Yanzhong Huang discusses how China’s environmental crisis is harming public health and undermining the Chinese government in his book Toxic Politics: China’s Environmental Health Crisis and Its Challenge to the Chinese State.

David Sandalow’s Guide to Chinese Climate Policy tracks the Chinese government’s responses to climate change.

For CFR’s Internationalist blog, Jennifer Hillman and Alex Tippett unpack the climate consequences of BRI.

Scott Malcomson explains in Foreign Affairs how China became the world’s leader in green energy.

This CFR Backgrounder looks at the successes and failures of global climate agreements.

The Climate Action Tracker lays out China’s commitments under the Paris Agreement and examines their effectiveness.

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Eleanor Albert and Beina Xu contributed to this Backgrounder.

Corrections: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the number of electric vehicles sold in 2019. This error was fixed on July 28, 2021. A previous version of the graphic on global carbon emissions incorrectly listed the unit as metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. This error was fixed on May 27, 2021.

For media inquiries on this topic, please reach out to [email protected].

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