West’s consumption of imports must be counted in its carbon footprint

Introductory comments

Western media commentators most commonly use annual carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions per country to describe carbon output, but this is a very misleading way to identify the actual dynamics behind carbon emissions. As China is the most populous nation, it is no surprise that this approach lends itself to painting China as the “bad player”.

Many experts believe that China, whose emissions are high in part because it produces goods that are used by people all over the world, should be measured differently. For example, the difference between  CO2 used in production vs. consumption in the United States is much smaller than China’s, meaning that in the U.S. much of the CO2 emissions come from American consumers, while in China it comes from the manufacturing of products that go to the rest of the world.

The use of the per-capita emissions—the amount of emissions produced per person—is another approach generally seen by experts as a more appropriate standard. This method allows us to understand the contribution to carbon emissions by the people from countries with smaller populations alongside those with larger ones more clearly.

In May 2020 a joint Chinese-US team of scientist published an important research report in the prestigious scientific journal Nature Communications.

The researchers pointed out that previously there had been no assessment of spatially explicit carbon footprint of China that considers both international and inter-provincial trade. They argued that lack of such information can lead to misinterpretation of the linkage between emissions and final consumers. The failure to trace emission drivers along both international and inter-provincial supply chains could further obstruct climate mitigation efforts for non-state actors in China (i.e. provinces/states, cities, and companies).

China, the world’s largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitting nation, has long been the primary producer of various industrial and consumer products imported and consumed by Western nations. A significant share of China’s GHG emissions can be attributed to the final consumption of other nations and regions, given that approximately one-quarter of China’s gross domestic product (GDP) is from exports.

Higher US tariff threat to China imports paused as spot ...
Exports to the United States and Japan between them accounted for 32% of Chinese foreign-linked CO2 emissions.

The researchers used what’s called carbon footprint accounting to measure and map the CO2 emissions of important supply chains. Scientists were able to map foreign-linked CO2 emissions at a spatial resolution of 10 by 10 Km, allowing the research team to pinpoint specific cities and industrial centers, and to spatially trace emissions within mainland China to final consumers worldwide through both international and inter-provincial trade.

Carbon footprint hotspots in China 

The study found that the carbon footprint hotspots in China driven by global consumption mainly emerge in cities in the Yangtze River Delta (e.g., Shanghai, Ningbo, Suzhou (Jiangsu), Xuzhou, Nanjing), North China Plain (e.g., Tianjin, Tangshan, Beijing, Handan), and Pearl River Delta (e.g., Dongguan, Guangzhou, Foshan). These areas are global hubs of manufacturing and exports for many industrial and consumer products. The emissions from these regions are closely linked with global consumption through downstream supply chains. 

As China’s largest export destination, the United States is also responsible for the largest share of the global carbon footprint in China. Carbon hotspots for the US in China are located in the “Yangtze River Delta notably in the cities of Shanghai, Suzhou, Ningbo, Xuzhou, Pearl River Delta concentrated in the cities of Dongguan, Guangzhou, Foshan, Huizhou, and Jing-Jin-Ji region particularly in the cities of Tianjin and Tangshan. All these cities are key manufacturing bases in China, and most of them have or are close to ports for maritime shipping. Exports from these ports drive large amounts of CO2 emissions in these cities”, said the report.

The study found that China’s special administrative region in Hong Kong relies heavily on mainland China for its consumption, and a large share of China’s exports is re-exported through Hong Kong. As a result, Hong Kong has a large carbon footprint in mainland China. 

Japan is the world’s third largest economy and China’s second largest export destination just after the US (excluding Hong Kong). The main carbon hotspots of Japan in China are in the cities of Shanghai, Ningbo, and Suzhou in the Yangtze River Delta and are also scattered across the coastal region in the North China Plain . Nearly 90% of Japan’s carbon footprint in China is driven by household final consumption (63.1%) and gross fixed capital formation (26.2%).

The rest of the ten regions with the largest carbon footprints in China are Germany, Great Britain, South Korea, India, Canada, France, and Italy.

The research revealed that global carbon hotspots in China are spatially concentrated in a small area— 1% of China’s land area encompasses around 75% of the carbon footprint of global consumption. Only slightly more than 2.2% of the land area in China is needed for 90% of the carbon footprint. This relatively small area of land corresponds to the manufacturing hubs in China―Yangtze River Delta, Pearl River Delta, and North China Plain―where CO2 emissions occur as a result of producing goods for export.

Carbon footprint hotspot in China from exports

The US has long been the largest driver of CO2 emissions in China (337 Mt in 2012), nearly half of which were driven by US household final consumption (49.2%), followed by gross fixed capital formation (17.1%), non-profit institutions serving households (11.9%), government final consumption (9.1%), changes in inventories (7.5%), and acquisitions less disposals of valuables (5.2%). In 2019 China was the United States’ largest supplier of goods imports (worth $451.7 billion), up by 342% from 2001.

The study showed that 14.6% of China’s industrial-related CO2 emissions were driven by foreign final consumption (2012) [and was around 13.5% in 2019].

The study also found that:

  • About 49% of the U.S.-linked CO2 emissions were driven by the production of consumer goods for the household.
  • About 42% of the export-driven CO2 emissions in China are tied to electricity generation, with notable hotspots in the cities of Shanghai, Ningbo, Suzhou (Jiangsu Province) and Xuzhou.
  • If the Chinese manufacturing hubs identified in the study constituted a separate country, their CO2 emissions would have ranked fifth in the world behind China, the United States, India and Russia, according to the authors.
  • Exports to the United States, Hong Kong and Japan were responsible for the biggest chunks of Chinese foreign-linked CO2 emissions, contributing about 23%, 10.8% and 9%, respectively.


The authors concluded that “Developing localized climate mitigation strategies requires an understanding of how global consumption drives local carbon dioxide emissions with a fine spatial resolution. … The carbon footprint hotspots identified in this study are the key places to focus on collaborative mitigation efforts between China and the downstream parties that drive those emissions.”

Fighting carbon leakage through consumption-based carbon ...
Fighting carbon leakage through consumption-based accounting for carbon emissions

Source: Nature Communications volume 1, 7 May 2020

Yuantao Yang, et al, ‘Mapping global carbon footprint in China’ https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-15883-9