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Spatiotemporal pattern of greenhouse gas emissions in China’s wastewater sector and pathways towards carbon neutrality


Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the wastewater sector are a major contributor to the overall GHG emissions of all countries, however, there is currently a lack of global, national-scale, detailed spatiotemporal emission data. In this study we elaborated dynamic plant-resolved emission factor values based on the case-specific operating parameters of each municipal wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) and the associated sewers and sludge disposal utilities in China, contrasting with previous estimations that typically focused on WWTP operation without differentiating their spatiotemporal discrepancies. We demonstrate here that China’s municipal wastewater industry generated 53.0 MtCO2e in total GHG emissions in 2019, with the northern and southern areas exhibiting noticeably higher GHG intensities. Due to improved wastewater treatment, the national average wastewater GHG intensity grew by 17.2% between 2009 and 2019, although it is anticipated that the intensity will begin to fall starting in 2020 at rates dependent on the chosen treatment methods. A net-zero emission by the entire sector may be achieved as early as 2044 with continually increasing decarbonized energy and a progressive shift to resource-oriented operations, compared with just a 23.7% decrease by 2050 under the baseline scenario. Joint efforts at the scientific, economic and policy level will be required to make this happen. This study may serve as a roadmap for developing carbon-neutral wastewater management policies and technologies in China and the rest of the globe.

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Fig. 1: System boundary and statistical analysis of GHG emissions generated during wastewater management.
Fig. 2: Historical trend and distribution of GHG intensity in China’s municipal wastewater sector during the period of 2009–2019.
Fig. 3: Geographical distribution of WWTP operating status and GHG emissions in China’s municipal wastewater sector.
Fig. 4: Projected wastewater GHG emissions under different future wastewater management paradigms.
Fig. 5: Future trends in GHG intensity and total GHG emissions in China’s municipal wastewater sector under different wastewater management scenarios.

Data availability

The data generated or analysed during this study are included in this published article and its Supplementary Information files. Supplementary Tables data are also available on Figshare at Source data are provided with this paper.


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The authors thank the National Natural Science Foundation of China (52192681, U21A20160, 51821006 and 22265010) for supporting this work.

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Authors and Affiliations



W.-J.D., J.-Y.L. and W.-W.L. conceived the idea. J.-Y.L., W.-J.D., Y.-R.H., J.X., C.Y., B.H. and S.C. collected and analysed the data. J.-Y.L., W.-W.L., J.W., Y.W. and W.-J.D. co-wrote the manuscript. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Wen-Wei Li.

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Du, WJ., Lu, JY., Hu, YR. et al. Spatiotemporal pattern of greenhouse gas emissions in China’s wastewater sector and pathways towards carbon neutrality. Nat Water 1, 166–175 (2023).

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