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China’s bulk material loops can be closed but deep decarbonization requires demand reduction

An Author Correction to this article was published on 25 October 2023

This article has been updated


China, as the largest global producer of bulk materials, confronts formidable challenges in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions arising from their production. Yet the emission savings resulting from circular economy strategies, such as improved scrap recovery, more intensive use and lifetime extension, remain underexplored. Here we show that, by 2060, China could source most of its required bulk materials through recycling, partially attributable to a declining population. Province-level results show that, while economic development initially drives up material demand, it also enables closed loops as demand approaches saturation levels. Between now and 2060, improved scrap recovery cumulatively reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 10%, while more intensive use, resulting in reduced material demand, reduces emissions by 21%. Lifetime extension offers a modest benefit, leading to a 3% reduction in emissions. Alongside the large potential for recycling, our findings highlight the importance of demand reduction in meeting global climate targets.

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Fig. 1: Overview of the IMAGINE Materials model.
Fig. 2: Material demand (inflow) and EoL material availability (outflow) between 2019 and 2060 across China.
Fig. 3: Material demand, EoL material availability, material savings and interprovincial EoL material trade in 2060.
Fig. 4: GHG savings by three CE strategies and remaining GHG emissions.
Fig. 5: GHG savings by three CE strategies and remaining GHG emissions across materials.

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Data availability

Data used for populating the model are available from (ref. 43). Source data are provided with this paper.

Code availability

Codes used for simulating material flows and stocks and GHG emissions are available via (ref. 43).

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This work was supported by the Natural Science Foundation of China (grant nos 71961147003, 52170183 and 52070178 to W.Q.C. and L.L.S.), the National Key Research and Development Program of the Ministry of Science and Technology (grant no. 2017YFC0505703 to W.Q.C. and L.L.S.), the International Partnership Program of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (grant no. 132C35KYSB20200004 to W.Q.C. and L.L.S.), the National Social Science Fund of China (grant no. 21&ZD104 to W.Q.C. and L.L.S.), Special Research Fund (BOF) of the University of Antwerp (grant no. 41-FA100200-FFB200410 to Z.C.) and the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities (grant no. 040-63233060 to Z.C.). E.M., F.M. and J.M.C. acknowledge support from C-THRU: Carbon clarity in the global petrochemical supply chain (

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Authors and Affiliations



W.Q.C., L.L.S. and Z.C. conceived and designed the research. W.Q.C. and Z.C. supervised the project. L.L.S. performed the simulations. L.L.S. and Z.C. produced the figures. S.v.E. and E.M. contributed to the scenario design. T.W., F.R.M. and J.M.C. contributed to the result interpretation. L.L.S. and Z.C. prepared the first draft. All authors reviewed and edited the manuscript.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Zhi Cao or Wei-Qiang Chen.

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Peer review information

Nature Climate Change thanks Raimund Bleischwitz, Qingshi Tu and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–18, Methods and Discussion and Tables 1–11.

Source data

Source Data Fig. 2

Future material demand (inflow) and end-of-life material availability (outflow) across China.

Source Data Fig. 3

Material demand, end-of-life material availability, material savings and interprovincial end-of-life material trade in 2060.

Source Data Fig. 4

GHG savings by three CE strategies and remaining GHG emissions.

Source Data Fig. 5

GHG savings by three CE strategies and remaining GHG emissions across materials.

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Song, L., van Ewijk, S., Masanet, E. et al. China’s bulk material loops can be closed but deep decarbonization requires demand reduction. Nat. Clim. Chang. 13, 1136–1143 (2023).

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