Article | Published:

Targeted opportunities to address the climate–trade dilemma in China

Nature Climate Change volume 6, pages 201206 (2016) | Download Citation

Abstract

International trade has become the fastest growing driver of global carbon emissions, with large quantities of emissions embodied in exports from emerging economies. International trade with emerging economies poses a dilemma for climate and trade policy: to the extent emerging markets have comparative advantages in manufacturing, such trade is economically efficient and desirable. However, if carbon-intensive manufacturing in emerging countries such as China entails drastically more CO2 emissions than making the same product elsewhere, then trade increases global CO2 emissions. Here we show that the emissions embodied in Chinese exports, which are larger than the annual emissions of Japan or Germany, are primarily the result of China’s coal-based energy mix and the very high emissions intensity (emission per unit of economic value) in a few provinces and industry sectors. Exports from these provinces and sectors therefore represent targeted opportunities to address the climate–trade dilemma by either improving production technologies and decarbonizing the underlying energy systems or else reducing trade volumes.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by China’s National Basic Research Program (2014CB441301), the State Key Laboratory of Urban and Regional Ecology, Chinese Academy of Sciences (SKLURE 2015-2-6), and Natural Science Foundation of China project (41328008). Z.L. acknowledges the National Natural Science Foundation of China-NSFC 41501605, the China Sustainable Energy Program of Energy Foundation (G-1407-21749), the Giorgio Ruffolo fellowship and the support from Italy’s Ministry for Environment, Land and Sea. S.J.D. acknowledges support from the Institute of Applied Ecology, Chinese Academy of Sciences Fellowships for Young International Distinguished Scientists. S.L. acknowledges the support of the Dow Sustainability Fellows Program. D.G. acknowledges the Economic and Social Research Council funded project ‘Dynamics of Green Growth in European and Chinese Cities’ (ES/L016028) and his Philip Leverhulme Prize.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA

    • Zhu Liu
    •  & Laura Diaz Anadon
  2. Resnick Sustainability Institute, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California 91125, USA

    • Zhu Liu
  3. Cambridge Centre for Climate Change Mitigation Research, Department of Land Economy, University of Cambridge, 19 Silver Street, Cambridge CB3 9EP, UK

    • Zhu Liu
  4. University of California, Irvine, Department of Earth System Science, Irvine, California 92697, USA

    • Steven J. Davis
  5. Institute of Applied Ecology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Shenyang 110016, China

    • Steven J. Davis
  6. Department of Geographical Sciences, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland 20742, USA

    • Kuishuang Feng
    •  & Klaus Hubacek
  7. Center for Environment Policy Research, Institute of Policy and Management, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100190, China

    • Kuishuang Feng
  8. School of Natural Resources and Environment, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109-1041, USA

    • Sai Liang
  9. Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy, University College, London W1T 6EY, UK

    • Laura Diaz Anadon
  10. State Key Joint Laboratory of Environmental Simulation and Pollution Control, School of Environment, Beijing Normal University, Beijing 100875, China

    • Bin Chen
  11. State Key Laboratory of Urban and Regional Ecology, Research Center for Eco-Environmental Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences, 100085 Beijing, China

    • Jingru Liu
  12. KTH-Royal Institute of Technology, SE-100 44 Stockholm, Sweden

    • Jinyue Yan
  13. Malardalen University, SE-721 23, Sweden

    • Jinyue Yan
  14. Ministry of Education Key Laboratory for Earth System Modeling, Center for Earth System Science, Tsinghua University, Beijing 100084, China

    • Dabo Guan
  15. Tydnall Centre for Climate Change Research, School of International Development, University of East Anglia, Norwich NR4 7TJ, UK

    • Dabo Guan

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Contributions

Z.L., K.F. and S.J.D. designed the research. Z.L., K.F. and S.J.D. conceived the paper. K.F. and J.L. provided the data. Z.L., S.J.D., K.F. and K.H. performed the analysis. S.J.D. drew the figures. All authors contributed to writing the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Steven J. Davis or Kuishuang Feng or Dabo Guan.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2800

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