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The cities that lead China on carbon reduction

30 August 2022

Thirty-eight Chinese cities have reduced their emissions of planet-warming carbon dioxide (CO2) despite growing economies and populations for at least five years. A further 21 cities have cut CO2 emissions as their economies or populations have ‘declined’ over the same period - defined as passively emission declined cities. This is revealed by new research from the Universities of Birmingham (UK), Groningen (Netherlands), and Tsinghua University (China) which was published in Science Bulleting on 24 August.

The experts discovered that the first group, the so-called proactively peaked cities such as Beijing and Taizhou (Zhejiang province), achieved emission decline mainly due to efficiency improvements and structural changes in energy use, whilst ‘declining’ cities, such as Fuxin (Liaoning province) and Shenyang (Liaoning province), are likely to have reduced emissions due to economic recession or population loss.

Photo: Jerry Wang on Unsplash
Photo: Jerry Wang on Unsplash

CO2 Inventories

The scientists recommend that instead of using a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, emission targets of cities need to be set individually considering cities’ resources, industrialisation levels, socio-economic characteristics, and development goals. Super-emitting cities with outdated technologies and lower production efficiency should develop stringent policies and targets for emissions reduction, while less developed regions could have more emission space for economic development.

For this study, an international team of scientists analysed comprehensive CO2 emission inventories of 287 Chinese cities from 2001 to 2019. The authors thank the data contribution from over 190 participants to the Summer School organised by the Carbon Emission Accounts and Datasets for Emerging Economies (CEADs) at Nanjing Normal University (2017) and Tsinghua University (2018 & 2019).

All the emission inventories of cities can be downloaded free-of-charge from CEADs–Carbon Emission Accounts and Datasets for emerging economies ( CEADs gathers experts from the UK, USA, and China to work on China and other emerging economies’ emission accounting methods and applications. The resource provides accurate and up-to-date carbon emission, socio-economic and trade data for academics, policy stakeholders, and public.

Yuli Shan | Photo University of Groningen
Yuli Shan | Photo University of Groningen


The first author of the paper is former University of Groningen scientist Dr. Yuli Shan, who is now Associate Professor in Sustainable Transitions at the University of Birmingham and subject leader of CEADs team. ‘The experiences and lessons learned from those 59 Chinese cities which have reduced their CO2 emissions cities can be used as benchmarks for other cities’, says Shan. ‘The achievements of these cities are notable for countries around the globe, as China is the world’s most significant emitter of CO2.’

He stresses that the impact of emission drivers varies among these cities. Growing cities which have reduced emissions should lead in setting precedents for China to reach the Dual-Carbon goals of achieving carbon emission peak before 2030 and carbon neutrality before 2060.

The scientists recommend that ‘declining’ cities with reduced emissions face the fact that the drop in emissions is mainly caused by a recessive economy, exhausted natural resources, insufficient competitiveness of industry or even shrinking population, rather than vigorously promoting low-carbon actions.

Klaus Hubacek | Photo University of Groningen
Klaus Hubacek | Photo University of Groningen

Carbon Neutrality

Co-author Prof. Klaus Hubacek from the University of Groningen comments: ‘Cities often struggle with economic decline and dwindling resources but at the same time need to keep an eye on mitigation goals and look for synergies to achieve the energy and resource transition.’

The researchers note that cities are at the heart of climate change mitigation, as they are currently emission and development hotspots with urban economic activity accounting for 80% of global GDP, 60-80% of energy consumption, and 75% of carbon emissions. Although more than 500 cities world-wide have committed to low-carbon and carbon neutrality goals, agreement is still lacking on how to best account for emissions and achieve decarbonisation at the city level. However, cities have the administrative capacity to carry out targeted emission reduction measures.

Corresponding author and founder of CEADs dataset Professor Dabo Guan from Tsinghua University comments: ‘The reduction strategy must be individualized. China is playing an increasing role in global climate change mitigation, and local authorities need more city-specific information on the emissions trends and patterns when designing low-carbon policies.’

Reference: Yuli Shan, Yuru Guan, Ye Hang, Heran Zheng, Yanxian Li, Dabo Guan, Jiashuo Li, Ya Zhouh, Li Li and Klaus Hubacek: City-level emission peak and drivers in China. Science Bulleting 24 August 2022

Text: University of Birmingham

Last modified:27 June 2024 4.01 p.m.
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