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China launches carbon market as it aims to reduce emissions

In 2019, China was responsible for 27% of global carbon emissions, meaning it released more than 10-billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the air, according to a report by independent research provider Rhodium Group.

Last week the country, which is under pressure from the US government to quicken its pace of reducing carbon emissions, launched its first national emissions-trading scheme. Some 45 countries already have such mechanisms, but the Chinese one, which began trading last week, is the world’s biggest.

The Rhodium report says China’s emissions exceed those of developed countries, and that this is probably, in large part, because of its population of more than 1.4-billion people. 

“In 2019, China’s emissions not only eclipsed [those] of the US, the world’s second-largest emitter at 11% of the global total, but also, for the first time, surpassed the emissions of all developed countries combined,” the report said.

China’s emissions were less than a quarter of developed countries’ emissions in 1990, but over the past three decades they have more than tripled to the equivalent of more than 14 gigatons of carbon dioxide in 2019. 

“China’s history as a major emitter is relatively short compared to developed countries, many of which had more than a century head start. A large share of the CO2 emitted into the atmosphere each year hangs around for hundreds of years,” the Rhodium report says.

Environmental journal Nature reported last week that the carbon market had been plagued by delays, and researchers argued that China’s scheme might not be ambitious enough to enable the Asian powerhouse to meet its reduction goals, including a 2030 deadline for peak emissions and a 2060 goal of net-zero emissions.

The journal said China was using the intensity of emissions (the amount of emissions per unit of energy generated) rather than absolute emissions to help to reduce the country’s effects on the climate. 

According to Nature, China’s scheme is based on a cap-and-trade model, under which coal- and gas-fired energy plants are allocated a certain number of emissions credits, which they can either either trade or buy, depending on whether they are below or above the cap. There are plans to expand this model to the construction, oil and chemicals sectors in coming years.

China’s model differs from those used in the EU, Canada and Argentina by virtue of its focus on decreasing the intensity of emissions rather than absolute emission.

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Chris Gilili
Chris Gilili is a climate and environmental journalist at the Mail & Guardian’s environmental unit, covering socioeconomic issues and general news. Previously, he was a fellow at amaBhungane, the centre for investigative journalism.

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