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Structural decline in China’s CO2 emissions through transitions in industry and energy systems


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.

Author information

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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to Dabo Guan or Shuai Shao.

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Fig. 1: Temporal change of CO2 emissions and related indicators in China from 2000 to 2016.
Fig. 2: Contribution of each driver to the change in energy-related CO2 emissions in the periods 2007–2010, 2010–2013 and 2013–2016.
Fig. 3: Sector-specific changes from 2013 to 2016 in China.