China is responsible for climate changes even when historical emissions are taken into account. New figures have proven this, despite Beijing’s long-standing attempt at blaming the West’s industrial revolution.

The country is the second-largest global polluter, even when carbon dioxide emissions dating back to 1850 are added. This is the date that most Western nations have industrialized and become dependent on fossil fuels at least for a part of their economic output.

The data supports Beijing’s lie that western nations are responsible for the crisis’ origins. China’s climate minister used this argument last week to defend the country’s weak climate commitments – before Xi Jinping’s likely absence at the COP26 climate conference.

He stated that “developed countries have been emitting greenhouse gases without any restraint in the last few hundred years since the industrial revolution, which has contributed to the climate problem today.”

Carbon Brief has released fresh analysis showing that China did indeed industrialize decades later than the West, but that it has grown so rapidly in recent years that the country’s cumulative carbon output has outpaced all other nations except the United States. The US is the only exception with slightly less than half of China’s.

China is the world's second-largest polluter even when emissions going back to 1850 are taken into account, new figures have shown, rebutting Beijing's insistence that the West is 'historically responsible' for the climate crisis

China is the world’s 2nd-largest polluter, even when emissions back to 1850 have been taken into account. New figures have shown this, refuting Beijing’s assertion that the West is ‘historically liable’ for the climate crisis

While China industrialised decades later than western nations, its growth in recent years - largely fuelled by coal - has been so ferocious that it has eclipsed almost all other nations. It is not the world's largest emitter by a wide margin (above)

Although China was industrialized decades later than the western nations, its rapid growth in recent years – largely driven by coal – has eclipsed nearly all other countries. It is not by a large margin the world’s biggest emitter (see above). 

The report uses data from recent decades measuring emissions and combines it alongside historical estimates based trade figures for fuels such coal, oil, natural gas that allow one to calculate the amount released when they were burned.

It also relies upon historic estimates including two papers published in 1894 and 1896 which attempted, for the first time, to measure carbon emissions and warned that they could contribute to changes in climate. 

The analysis also considers CO2 emissions from land use, such as intensive farming and deforestation, as well as the plating and planting of trees and forests, which act as carbon sinks by removing pollutants.

Carbon Brief only considers carbon emissions in its analysis. This is because carbon accumulates in the atmosphere and contributes long-term warming. Other gases can also contribute to short-term warming but they quickly dissipate.

China is currently third in the table, having been there since 1850. This is largely due to deforestation that created farmland and provided fuel for domestic fires. America is already well ahead of the rest, due to the combination of land clearing by settlers as well as the early adoption and use of industrial technology.

China quickly drops off the list, replacing the likes of Russia and the UK as they industrialize, and start to rely more on carbon for energy generation. Due to extensive deforestation, Brazil and Indonesia also rank high on this list.

However, China quickly rose to second place in the rankings, shortly after Chairman Mao announced The Great Leap Forward in 1960.

The report also states that China’s rapid, largely coal-fired, economic boom since 2000 is what has led to its current position.

“China’s annual CO2 emissions have more than tripled in the past decade, surpassing the US to become the largest emitter of CO2. It is responsible for about a quarter the total global annual CO2 emissions.

China is still second in the rankings despite having ‘consumption emissions’, which is carbon emitted while producing goods for other nations. This contradicts another commonly-quoted opinion that China is being unfairly punished because it produces products bought from the West.   

China drops out of the top 20 only when you take into account carbon emissions per capita. Perhaps  surprisingly, it is New Zealand that tops the list of carbon-producing countries throughout history when viewed in terms of total population. Canada is the country with the highest carbon production per capita over the past year.

China is the world's largest producer and user of coal, and plans to build more coal-fired power stations throughout this decade before finally capping their use in 2030 (pictured, a coal plant in Mongolia)

China is the world’s largest coal producer and user. They plan to build more coal-fired power plants in the coming decade before finally capping their use by 2030. (pictured, a Mongolian coal plant) 

Xi Jinping has resisted calls to go further and faster in cutting his country's emissions, and is unlikely to attend the COP26 summit in Glasgow next month where more-ambitious targets will be agreed

Xi Jinping has resisted calls for him to cut his country’s emissions faster and further. He is unlikely to attend the COP26 summit next month in Glasgow, where more ambitious targets will be agreed.

China is the largest coal producer and user in the world, accounting for more than 60%.

It currently has 1,082 coal fired power stations and is working to build more.

While the majority of other countries, including the US, have made commitments to cut their carbon emissions immediately and legally bindingly, China actually plans to increase its carbon output over the next decade.

Xi Jinping signed the Paris Accord in 2015. He only committed to limiting China’s carbon output by 2030 – but he did not say what level – before becoming carbon neutral by 2060. The vast majority of countries are committed to becoming carbon neutral a decade earlier than expected, in 2050.

China is not the first country to try to avoid responsibility for the current climate crisis. In 2007, two years after the Kyoto Protocol became the first global treaty aimed to reducing carbon emissions, Beijing tried to blame western countries for the damage.

The foreign ministry stated that climate change was caused by long-term emissions from developed countries and high per capita emissions. “Developed countries are responsible for their actions.

The new analysis shows that this was the year China leapfrogged Russia to claim second place on the list of historical emissions. It also shows that it has nearly doubled the amount carbon it has released into the atmosphere in the years since.

UN scientists warn that climate change will have devastating consequences for humanity if emissions are not drastically reduced over the next decades. This will require a wholesale transformation of the global economic system.

In a report issued earlier this year ahead of the COP26 summit, the UN sounded ‘code red for humanity’ – warning of annual extreme heat waves, typhoons and 5ft rises in sea level if nothing is done to reduce emissions.

China, the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, will be central to efforts for curbing the worst effects of global warming. However, Beijing has strongly resisten to agree to any targets that go beyond the current efforts. Analysts say these efforts fall far short of what is required in order to avert ‘catastrophe.

The UK has committed to going further and faster than any other nation to tackle climate change, including huge investments in renewables (pictured, the world's largest offshore windfarm at Dogger Bank)

The UK has made a commitment to address climate change faster and further than any other nation, including large investments in renewables. (pictured, Dogger Bank’s largest offshore Windfarm)

An editorial in the state-run Global Times newspaper stated last month that China had already published its own climate roadmap and would continue to follow its own pace. 

Many fear that Xi’s absence at COP26 will make the summit a damp squib, and another missed opportunity for world leaders to take decisive actions. 

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP), today warned that even with new pledges and plans from countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the next ten years, the world will still be facing global warming of 2.7C by 20100.

It stated that the latest climate pledges and plans of countries to reduce emissions by 2030 are only going to reduce predicted global warming pollution by 7.5% compared to previous commitments.

To meet the goal of limiting global temperature rises below 1.5C, 55% must be reduced. Anything beyond that will result in more severe climate change impacts, such as rising seas and extreme weather.

The EU and 49 other countries have agreed to long-term targets of reducing emissions to net zero. This could reduce temperature rises to 2.2C. But only if these targets are fully implemented. Action must be taken within the next ten years.

The report also showed that only a fifth the recovery investment was made to support green measures after the pandemic. This is a missed opportunity to take action to reduce carbon emissions.

The report also highlights the potential to reduce emissions quickly, such as by tackling methane, a powerful but short-lived greenhouse gases, which could be significantly reduced with technology and diet changes.

Inger Andersen, UNEP executive director, launched the report in front of world leaders heading to Glasgow for crucial Cop26 talks on climate change.

Climate change is not a problem of the future. It is a present problem,’ she stated.