Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Analysis
  • Published:

China’s CO2 peak before 2030 implied from characteristics and growth of cities


China pledges to peak CO2 emissions by 2030 or sooner under the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 2 °C or less by the end of the century. By examining CO2 emissions from 50 Chinese cities over the period 2000–2016, we found a close relationship between per capita emissions and per capita gross domestic product (GDP) for individual cities, following the environmental Kuznets curve, despite diverse trajectories for CO2 emissions across the cities. Results show that carbon emissions peak for most cities at a per capita GDP (in 2011 purchasing power parity) of around US$21,000 (80% confidence interval: US$19,000 to 22,000). Applying a Monte Carlo approach to simulate the peak of per capita emissions using a Kuznets function based on China’s historical emissions, we project that emissions for China should peak at 13–16 GtCO2 yr−1 between 2021 and 2025, approximately 5–10 yr ahead of the current Paris target of 2030. We show that the challenges faced by individual types of Chinese cities in realizing low-carbon development differ significantly depending on economic structure, urban form and geographical location.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Fig. 1: CO2 emissions and trends of 50 Chinese cities from 2000 to 2016.
Fig. 2: Per capita CO2 emissions of the 50 Chinese cities in 2010.
Fig. 3: The relationship between annual per capita GDP and CO2 emissions for China.

Similar content being viewed by others

Data availability

Details on the methodology and data for estimating CO2 emissions of 50 Chinese cities are summarized in the Supplementary Information, and any other datasets generated during this study are available upon request from the corresponding authors.


  1. Watts, M. Cities spearhead climate action. Nat. Clim. Change 7, 537–538 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. IPCC Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change (eds Edenhofer, O. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014).

  3. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision: Highlights (United Nations, 2014).

  4. Rosenzweig, C., Solecki, W., Hammer, S. A. & Mehrotra, S. Cities lead the way in climate-change action. Nature 467, 909–911 (2010).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  5. Duren, R. M. & Miller, C. E. Measuring the carbon emissions of megacities. Nat. Clim. Change 2, 560–562 (2012).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. Weiss, K. Cities bask in spotlight at Paris climate talks. Nature (2015).

  7. Wang, H., Zhang, Y., Lu, X., Nielsen, C. P. & Bi, J. Understanding China’s carbon dioxide emissions from both production and consumption perspectives. Renew. Sustain. Energy Rev. 52, 189–200 (2015).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  8. National Bureau of Statistics of the People’s Republic of China China Statistical Yearbook 2012 (China Statistics Press, 2013).

  9. Qi, Y., Wu, T., He, J. & King, D. A. China’s carbon conundrum. Nat. Geosci. 6, 507–509 (2013).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  10. Wiedenhofer, D. et al. Unequal household carbon footprints in China. Nat. Clim. Change 7, 75–80 (2017).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  11. Baeumler, A. et al. Sustainable Low-carbon City Development in China (World Bank, 2012).

  12. Kennedy, C. et al. Greenhouse gas emissions from global cities. Environ. Sci. Technol. 43, 7297–7302 (2009).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. Liu, Z. et al. Features, trajectories and driving forces for energy-related GHG emissions from Chinese mega cites: the case of Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and Chongqing. Energy 37, 245–254 (2012).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  14. Kennedy, C. A., Ibrahim, N. & Hoornweg, D. Low-carbon infrastructure strategies for cities. Nat. Clim. Change 4, 343–346 (2014).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  15. Zhang, Y. et al. A dual strategy for controlling energy consumption and air pollution in China’s metropolis of Beijing. Energy 81, 294–303 (2015).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  16. Dhakal, S. Urban energy use and carbon emissions from cities in China and policy implications. Energy Policy 37, 4208–4219 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Bi, J. et al. The benchmarks of carbon emissions and policy implications for China’s cities: case of Nanjing. Energy Policy 39, 4785–4794 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Wang, H. et al. Mitigating greenhouse gas emissions from China’s cities: case study of Suzhou. Energy Policy 68, 482–489 (2014).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  19. Wang, H., Zhang, R., Liu, M. & Bi, J. The carbon emissions of Chinese cities. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 12, 7985–8007 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Ramaswami, A. et al. Urban cross-sector actions for carbon mitigation with local health co-benefits in china. Nat. Clim. Change 7, 736–742 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Cai, B., Guo, H., Cao, L., Guan, D. & Bai, H. Local strategies for China’s carbon mitigation: an investigation of Chinese city-level CO2 emissions. J. Clean. Prod. 178, 890–902 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Shan, Y. et al. City-level climate change mitigation in China. Sci. Adv. 4, eaaq0390 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Gurney, K. R. et al. Track urban emissions on a human scale. Nature 525, 179–181 (2015).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  24. Dodman, D. Blaming cities for climate change? An analysis of urban greenhouse gas emissions inventories. Environ. Urban 21, 185–201 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Hillman, T. & Ramaswami, A. Greenhouse gas emission footprints and energy use benchmarks for eight U.S. cities. Environ. Sci. Technol. 44, 1902–1910 (2010).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  26. Sovacool, B. K. & Brown, M. A. Twelve metropolitan carbon footprints: a preliminary comparative global assessment. Energy Policy 38, 4856–4869 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Boden, T. A., Marland, G. & Andres, R. J. Global, Regional, and National Fossil-Fuel CO 2 Emissions (Oak Ridge National Laboratory, US Department of Energy, 2017);

  28. Liu, Z. et al. A low-carbon road map for china. Nature 500, 143–145 (2013).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  29. Feng, K. et al. Outsourcing CO2 within china. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 110, 11654–11659 (2013).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  30. Chen, Y., Ebenstein, A., Greenstone, M. & Li, H. Evidence on the impact of sustained exposure to air pollution on life expectancy from China’s Huai River policy. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 110, 12936–12941 (2013).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  31. Shen, H. et al. Urbanization-induced population migration has reduced ambient PM2.5 concentrations in China. Sci. Adv. 3, e1700300 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Huo, H., Zhang, Q., Liu, F. & He, K. Climate and environmental effects of electric vehicles versus compressed natural gas vehicles in China: a life-cycle analysis at provincial level. Environ. Sci. Technol. 47, 1711–1718 (2013).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  33. Güneralp, B. et al. Global scenarios of urban density and its impacts on building energy use through 2050. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 114, 8945–8950 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Ürge-Vorsatz, D. et al. Locking in positive climate responses in cities. Nat. Clim. Change 8, 174–177 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Mi, Z. et al. Chinese CO2 emission flows have reversed since the global financial crisis. Nat. Commun. 8, 1712 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Guan, D. et al. Structural decline in China’s CO2 emissions through transitions in industry and energy systems. Nat. Geosci. 11, 551–555 (2018).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  37. McGranahan, G. & Satterthwaite, D. Urban centers: an assessment of sustainability. Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour. 28, 243–274 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Creutzig, F., Baiocchi, G., Bierkandt, R., Pichler, P. P. & Seto, K. C. Global typology of urban energy use and potentials for an urbanization mitigation wedge. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 112, 6283–6288 (2015).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  39. Lu, X. et al. Challenges faced by China compared with the US in developing wind power. Nat. Energy 1, 16061 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. International Council of Local Environmental Initiatives Local Government Operations Protocol for the Quantification and Reporting of Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventories (ICLEI, 2010);

  41. Grossman, G. M. & Krueger, A. B. Economic growth and the environment. Q. J. Econ. 110, 353–377 (1995).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Shahbaz, M. & Sinha, A. Environmental Kuznets curve for CO2 emissions: a literature survey. J. Econ. Stud. 46, 106–168 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Li, T., Yong, W. & Zhao, D. Environmental Kuznets curve in China: new evidence from dynamic panel analysis. Energy Policy 91, 138–147 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


This study was supported by the National Key R&D Program of China (2016YFA0600204), National Natural Science Foundation of China (NNSFC) (41371528, 71433007, 71690244), IGSNRR and Youth Innovation Promotion Association CAS (2019055) and the Harvard Global Institute of Harvard University.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



H.W. conceived and led the research. H.W., X.L. and J.B. designed the paper. Y.S., Y.D. and H.W. calculated emissions. Y.L., G.Z. and M.B. performed emission trends analysis. H.W., X.L., Y.D. and C.P.N. interpreted the data. H.W., X.L., C.P.N. and M.B.M. drew conclusions and wrote the paper with input from all co-authors.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Haikun Wang or Jun Bi.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Tables 1–8, Figs. 1–9, methods and references.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Wang, H., Lu, X., Deng, Y. et al. China’s CO2 peak before 2030 implied from characteristics and growth of cities. Nat Sustain 2, 748–754 (2019).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing