Press Release

China Passes U.S., Leads World in Power Sector Carbon Emissions

August 27, 2008

Click here to access the Carbon Monitoring for Action (CARMA) database

WASHINGTON, D.C.(June 7, 2011)—Latin American economies face substantial risks of credit and asset bubbles due to a flood of capital fleeing economic and financial uncertainties in the United States and Europe and should take steps to slow the growth of credit, a group of the region’s top economists and financial experts said in a report released today.

The data, from the first annual update of CGD’s Carbon Monitoring for Action (CARMA) database, show that China accounts for more than half of the increase in global CO2 emissions due to power generation over the past year, mostly due to a surge in construction of new coal-fired plants (*This number was revised on 8/28/08*).

According to the new CARMA data released today, Chinese power plants will produce about 3.1 billion tons of CO2 this year, up from about 2.7 billion tons in 2007(*This number was revised on 8/28/08*). Power plants in the U.S will produce about 2.8 billion tons of CO2 this year, about the same as last year. If all power plants currently planned in China and the U.S. are eventually built, China’s power-related emissions will exceed those of the U.S. by 40 percent, although on a per capita basis the U.S. would still be the far-and-away the larger polluter from power production. The U.S. emits much more than China from transportation, in both absolute and per capita terms, because of the heavy reliance on cars.

Globally power generation accounts for more than a quarter of all emissions of CO2, the main greenhouse gas causing climate change, and the proportion is rising quickly.

CARMA data show that global emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) from power generation have grown more than 34 percent in the past eight years, to 11.4 billion tons per year from 8.5 billion tons in 2000, notwithstanding some improvements in efficiency and slowly growing reliance on renewable energy. Two-thirds of the increase since 2000 is attributable to a surge in emissions from China.

“The new data show that emissions from power generation are racing in the wrong direction,” says CGD Senior Fellow David Wheeler. “We urgently need to cut power-related CO2 emissions and to very rapidly bring down the price of proven, zero-carbon renewable power sources, such as wind and solar.”

The new data are cause for serious concern, including for China itself and for other developing countries. Climate scientists warn that the amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere must be quickly stabilized to avert climate catastrophe, which will hit first and worst in the developing world, with declining agricultural productivity, droughts, floods, and rapid sea level rise hitting densely populated, low-lying regions.

The additional 2.9 billion tons of power-related CO2 emissions per year since 2000 is equivalent to the annual carbon emissions of Australia, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain combined.

The world’s top-ten power sector emitters in absolute terms are China, the United States, India, Russia, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa, and South Korea. If the 27 member states of the European Union are counted as a single country, the E.U. would rank as the third biggest CO2 polluter, after China and the United States.

In per capita terms, emissions from the U.S. power sector are the second highest in the world. Americans’ electricity usage produces about 9.5 tons of CO2 per person per year, compared to 2.4 tons per person per year in China, 0.6 in India, and 0.1 in Brazil. Average per capita emissions from electricity and heat production in the EU is 3.3 tons per year. Only Australia, at greater than 10 tons per year, emits more power-related emissions per person than the U.S. In many developing countries, per capita power consumption is extremely low, and millions of people lack access to electricity at all.

In one of the few encouraging findings, the CARMA data reveal that carbon intensity—the amount of carbon emitted per unit of power produced—shows signs of declining in some major countries, including China, India, Russia, and South Africa. But the decline is not nearly fast enough to offset the rapid growth in power consumption.

“Higher fuel prices lead power companies to improve the efficiency of fossil-fueled plants whenever possible. But those measures are inherently modest and total global emissions continue to grow rapidly,” said CGD researcher Kevin Ummel, who manages the CARMA database. “The needed shift to renewable and low-carbon alternatives is happening far too slowly to avert dangerous climate change.”

Carbon intensity has declined in Europe since 2000—from 965 to 941 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour of electricity—but is actually projected to rise in the future to 983. The U.S. shows a similar pattern, with carbon intensity declining slightly early in this decade and now beginning to rise again. “Europe’s projected increase in carbon intensity is disconcerting and reflects a growing reliance on coal as oil and natural gas prices rise,” said Wheeler. “Given Europe’s past leadership in renewable technologies, this move back to coal is a serious blemish on an otherwise encouraging record.”

CARMA provides the estimated CO2 emissions of more than 50,000 power plants worldwide, based on publically disclosed emissions data and a model utilizing plant-specific fuel types and technologies. The CARMA website shows ranked lists of plant-level emissions globally as well as for countries, states, provinces, and cities. For the U.S., CARMA includes additional data for counties, metro-areas, and congressional districts. The database also includes information on the corporate ownership of plants. Since the data-intensive site was launched last November more than 300,000 visitors have explored and downloaded the data at

The company data is important to investors, because power companies that utilize low-carbon technologies—like hydropower, nuclear, wind, and solar—face fewer potential climate-related liabilities, such as carbon charges under future regulation. CARMA makes it easy to find these companies: large power producers with low-carbon intensity earn a large Green icon, while large power producers with high CO2 intensity earn a large Red icon.

The Dirty Get Bigger
The top-ten power companies in the world in terms of power sector emissions include five in China, two in the U.S., one in India, one in South Africa, and one in Germany. The world’s biggest corporate carbon emitter is China’s Huaneng Power International, whose plants pump out about 285 million tons of CO2 per year, far more than the 227 million tons produced by all of the power plants in the United Kingdom combined and almost as much as the entire continent of Africa (335 million tons).

The United States’ biggest CO2 emitter is Southern Co. with annual emissions over 200 million tons, followed by American Electric Power Company Inc. at 175 million tons, and Duke Energy Corp. at 112 million tons.

According to Ummel, “A number of power companies have expressed desire for national policies to limit emissions and promote alternative energy,” he said. “But without financial incentives for big emitters to change their behavior, they continue operating and building carbon-intensive plants – and Earth’s climate moves closer to the breaking point.”

CGD president Nancy Birdsall says that the new CARMA data highlights the urgency and importance of reaching an international agreement that provides resources and technical support for poor countries to grow economically and reduce poverty, while also stabilizing and eventually reducing emissions.

“The rich countries created this problem and will have to take the lead in solving it. But the rapid growth in developing country power sector emissions reminds us that we won’t be able to avert rapid climate change, and the harm it will cause to the world’s poorest people, without also finding a way to enable poor countries to both grow and cut emissions,” Birdsall said. “Like it or not, we are all in this together and currently we are headed in the wrong direction.”