As part of the Paris Agreement, China pledged to peak its CO2 emissions by 2030. In retrospect, the commitment may have been fulfilled as it was being made—China’s emissions peaked in 2013 at a level of 9.53 gigatons of CO2, and have declined in each year from 2014 to 2016. However, the prospect of maintaining the continuance of these reductions depends on the relative contributions of different changes in China. Here, we quantitatively evaluate the drivers of the peak and decline of China’s CO2 emissions between 2007 and 2016 using the latest available energy, economic and industry data. We find that slowing economic growth in China has made it easier to reduce emissions. Nevertheless, the decline is largely associated with changes in industrial structure and a decline in the share of coal used for energy. Decreasing energy intensity (energy per unit gross domestic product) and emissions intensity (emissions per unit energy) also contributed to the decline. Based on an econometric (cumulative sum) test, we confirm that there is a clear structural break in China’s emission pattern around 2015. We conclude that the decline of Chinese emissions is structural and is likely to be sustained if the nascent industrial and energy system transitions continue.

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This work was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (41629501, 71373153, 21521064, 91746112, 71773075, 71761137001, 41501605 and 71503168), the National Key R&D Program of China (2016YFA0602604, 2016YFC201506, 2016YFC0206202 and 2016YFA0602500), the National Social Science Foundation of China (15ZDA054), Chinese Academy of Engineering (2017-ZD-15-07), the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NE/N00714X/1 and NE/P019900/1), the Economic and Social Research Council (ES/L016028/1), a British Academy Grant (AF150310) and the Philip Leverhulme Prize.

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Author notes

  1. These authors contributed equally: Dabo Guan, Jing Meng


  1. Department of Earth System Science, Tsinghua University, Beijing, China

    • Dabo Guan
    • , Zhu Liu
    •  & Qiang Zhang
  2. Water Security Research Centre, School of International Development, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK

    • Dabo Guan
    • , Jing Meng
    •  & Yuli Shan
  3. Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK

    • Jing Meng
  4. Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK

    • David M. Reiner
  5. College of Economics, Jinan University, Guangzhou, China

    • Ning Zhang
  6. The Bartlett School of Construction and Project Management, University College London, London, UK

    • Zhifu Mi
  7. School of Urban and Regional Science, Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, Shanghai, China

    • Shuai Shao
  8. Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, School of International Development, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK

    • Zhu Liu
  9. Department of Earth System Science, University of California, Irvine, CA, USA

    • Steven J. Davis
  10. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of California, Irvine, CA, USA

    • Steven J. Davis


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D.G., D.M.R and S.J.D. conceived the study. D.G. led the study. Y.S. and Z.M. provided energy and emission data. J.M. performed decomposition analysis. N.Z. and S.S. performed the econometric analysis. All authors (D.G., J.M., D.M.R., N.Z., Y.S., Z.M., S.S., Z.L., Q.Z. and S.J.D.) interpreted the data and wrote the paper.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Correspondence to Dabo Guan or Jing Meng or Ning Zhang or Shuai Shao.

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