As the largest greenhouse gas emitting nation, China clearly needs to show strong leadership to avoid the worst global impacts of climate change. In recent years, China has taken positive steps to reduce its carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. But China also emits a significant amount of GHGs besides carbon dioxide -- methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons, sulfur hexafluoride and nitrogen trifluoride -- collectively referred to as non-CO2 GHG emissions.  In 2012, China’s non-CO2 GHG emissions comprised nearly one-fifth of the country’s total GHG inventory. Moreover, in a new publication, Opportunities to Enhance Non-Carbon Dioxide Greenhouse Gas Mitigation in China, WRI researchers find that these emissions could nearly double by 2030 (relative to 2005 levels) if China doesn’t take additional measures to curb them. WRI analysis finds that, just by scaling up existing initiatives, China can reduce its non-CO2 GHG emissions by nearly 30 percent by 2030. But more can still be done.

As China shifts toward a more environmentally and economically sustainable model of development, the moment is ripe to do more to tackle non-CO2 GHG emissions. Our study shows that many of the building blocks are already in place to support China in cutting these emissions:

  • The Chinese government has set reduction targets for two of its largest sources of non-CO2 GHGs: coal bed methane and HFC emissions. These targets are also supported by financial subsidies and more favorable tax policies.
  • The 2015 Circular Economy Promotion Plan details actions and targets for scaling up waste recycling and reuse (thereby reducing methane emissions) and generating power from low-concentration methane.
  • The 2012 Cleaner Production Promotion Law promotes initiatives that eradicate waste, improve resource utilization, and stimulate cleaner production processes—activities that go hand-in-hand with the mitigation of non-CO2 GHGs.
  • The 13th Five Year Plan (which outlines the strategic vision for China through 2020) explicitly states the need to control non-CO2 GHGs.

Three key abatement actions can help China to achieve further deep cuts in non-CO2 GHG emissions.

1. Tackle methane emissions from coal mining and rice fields

More than half of China’s non-CO2 GHG emissions come in the form of methane, which can trap 28 times as much heat as carbon dioxide on a per metric tonne basis. Methane is released predominantly from the country’s agricultural activities and extensive coal mining operations. China’s post-2020 national climate action plan, known as an INDC, indicates commitment to addressing both of these emission sources, setting goals for increased coal bed methane production and controlling emissions from rice fields. The combined non-CO2 GHG reduction potential for these sources is estimated at nearly 300 million metric tonnes (330 million U.S. tons) of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2030—more than the Netherlands’ total annual GHG emissions.

2. Curb HFC emissions from industry

China’s HFC emissions are on the rise as these gases are increasingly used as refrigerants in place of CFCs and HCFCs, which are being phased out under the Montreal Protocol. Although the country has been working to phase down HFC emissions since its joint announcement with the United States in 2013, more work remains. The introduction of financial subsidies in 2015 to stimulate reductions in HFC-23 — the most potent of all HFC gases — represents a promising start. If industry can fully utilize these subsidies, HFC emissions could be cut by close to 90 percent by 2030, or around 200 million metric tonnes (220 million U.S. tons) of carbon dioxide equivalent.

3. Reduce nitrous oxide emissions from fertilizer application

China’s nitrous oxide emissions from fertilizer application are the highest of any country, accounting for nearly a third of the world’s total. Chinese farmers are currently experimenting with new fertilization techniques to reduce these emissions, including employing precision agriculture and applying organic compounds, known as bio-inhibitors, to slow the release of nitrous oxide formation. The Chinese government also plans to achieve zero growth in fertilizer use by 2020. This could bring a 10 percent reduction in emissions from this key source, with further mitigation potential if these new fertilization techniques reach commercial scale.

Getting There

To fully exploit these opportunities, China first needs to develop a comprehensive understanding of its non-CO2 GHG emissions. The country developed its last official national GHG inventory for the 2005 calendar year, which makes it challenging to get an accurate read on current non-CO2 GHG emissions.  Timely, robust and credible GHG data forms is essential to identify key non-CO2 GHG emissions sources, assess emissions changes over time and prioritize actions to curb emissions, not to mention serving as a key indicator for tracking policy implementation and effectiveness.

With accurate GHG data, China can turn its attention toward setting source-specific non-CO2 GHG reduction targets. Over time, these targets can be scaled up to sector-level emissions reduction goals and, ultimately, economy-wide GHG targets. In China, targets have proven to be valuable tools for enhancing policy implementation and effectiveness, driving the consistent implementation of actions, delegating responsibility, promoting transparency and building political will. This will allow the country to move the world closer to a safer climate.