The World's Biggest Polluter Just Hit Its Carbon Emissions Goal 12 Years Early

Here's how they did it.

A new study suggests that China, the largest polluter of carbon emissions in the world, has hit its carbon "peak" 12 years earlier than it promised in the Paris Climate Agreement.

Research published in Nature Geoscience journal suggests China emissions of greenhouse gasses, including carbon dioxide, topped out at 9.5 billion tons in 2013 before declining to 9.2 billion in 2016, the final year of the data. That could mean China successfully leveled off its emissions well before it had promised — or even hoped to — in the largest global pact to fight climate change.

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"10 years ago, it would have been a stretch to say that China was building itself to be the world leader in climate change and green development," Jennifer Turner, who has been the director of the Wilson Center's China Environment Forum for nearly two decades, told A Plus. "That said, even about seven years ago, China started to out-spend the U.S. on clean energy technology investments."

BEIJING, CHINA - DECEMBER 11, 2016: Unidentified people using facemask are seen at a bus stop in city downtown. Today, China's meteorological authorities issued a yellow alert for smog. testing / Shutterstock

The investment China has made in its clean energy infrastructure is just one piece of a complex picture on how the world's coal Goliath and biggest polluter has begun to turn the tide. With news of never-before-seen melting in the Arctic fresh on the minds of environmentalists, China's success hitting its goal is perceived by many as a flicker of hope in an often perilous-looking effort to slow the impact of climate change and pollution.  

Turner spoke extensively to A Plus about the news, noting that the headlines all come with important footnotes. She described the perceived peak as China attempting to "turn the coal Titanic," adding that there is still concern more developments in 2017 and 2018 — along with some local governments adding back coal plants because of job losses — could bring in new data, less encouraging about emissions.

Still, the Titanic is undoubtedly turning. Part of the government's response was due to the unthinkable pollution civilians encountered in 2012 and 2013, when the United States embassy was live tweeting air quality numbers that contradicted the communist government's own data. 

"You couldn't see the building across from you, a lot of people were sick," Turner remembered. "The Chinese public didn't need the U.S. embassy to tell them that the air quality wasn't good. Even the Chinese news media were critical of the air quality."

As recently as 2017, Chinese cities were in the global media limelight for a red alert on polluted air. 

The country has overseen both modernizations of its coal-powered plants and the shuttering of coal plants across the eastern part of the country. Turner explained that with a single, communist, authoritarian party rule in China, it's sometimes possible to move more quickly than in a Democratic country. Since the Chinese government decided to move on reducing coal energy, they've done so at a clip that other nation's may not be able to. The motivation came also because the Chinese government's strongest pillar of legitimacy is its economic success, but pollution was clearly starting to threaten not just public development, but public health and social stability. 

Shanghai, China - Feb. 24, 2016: aerial view of fog city.  atiger / Shutterstock

Just as important is that the Chinese government has acknowledged the growing incidents of severe weather, the sea level rise and the rain patterns changing excessively — all evidence of climate change

"The Chinese government recognizes that climate change is real and they want to act," Turner said. 

As a result, China has seen the upside of environmental innovation. Their push to create more clean energy and address climate change has spurred innovation and created products — like solar panels — that they can then outsource to other countries.

There's a lot more opportunity to improve, too. While China has cut back on emissions and invested in wind and solar power, the country has seen more cars hit the road recently than in years past, The Daily Beast reported. As a result, it's now trying to increase the number of electric vehicles in the market. While its own coal production has leveled off, it's still investing in coal plants abroad in places such as the Philippines and Indonesia. 

Instead of using the newer, more efficient coal plants, those countries are using the cheaper, quicker to produce and higher-emission coal plants. Turner says China is also behind on methane capture, which places, such as the United States, use to recycle gas emissions into energy. 

So, while the milestone is celebrated, spectators will continue to hold their breath that the leveling off becomes the new normal — as opposed to a blip in a trend upwards. 

"China has committed," Turner said. "I don't see them massively ramping up coal-fired power again."

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