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Climate Change

US vs. China: How the world's two biggest emitters stack up on climate

Story by Helen Regan and Carlotta Dotto

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Published on October 29, 2021 6:44 AM
No country in the world has put more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than the United States. While China is by far the biggest emitter today, it hasn't always been.
China and the United States are the world's two biggest greenhouse gas emitters, so any attempt to address the climate crisis will need to involve deep emissions cuts from these two powerhouse nations.

China's emissions are more than double those of the US, but historically, the US has emitted more than any other country in the world.

There are many factors to consider when judging a country's climate credentials, and as leaders gather in Glasgow, Scotland for COP26 from Sunday, the US' and China's plans will be in the spotlight. Here's how the two stack up against each other.

In 2006, China overtook the US as the world's biggest emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2) -- the most abundant greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.

In 2019, the last year before the pandemic hit, China's greenhouse gas emissions were nearly 2.5 times that of the US', and more than all the world's developed countries combined, according to an analysis from Rhodium Group.

In terms of CO2-equivalent -- which is a way of measuring all greenhouse gases as if they were CO2 -- China emitted 14.1 billion metric tons in 2019. That's more than a quarter of the world's total emissions.

By contrast, the US was responsible for 5.7 billion tons, 11% of total emissions, followed by India (6.6%) and the European Union (6.4%).

When scientists measure greenhouse gas emissions, they look at the total emissions that a country pumps into the air on their own land every year. Those emissions come from anything powered by fossil-fuels, including driving cars that run on gasoline, flying, heating and lighting buildings with power generated from coal, natural gas or oil, as well as from powering industry. Other sources, like emissions from deforestation, are included too...