Lifestyle, technology and CO2 emissions in China

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China as the world’s largest developing country and the most populous country has achieved notable success in developing their economy with approximate 10 percent average annual growth of GDP over the last two decades [1-3]. Large sections of the population have been experiencing a transition from ‘poverty’ to ‘adequate food and clothing’; today growing parts of the population are getting closer to ‘well to do’ lifestyles [3]. However, the rapid growth of the economy has not only lead to dramatic changes of wealth and people’s lifestyle, but has also caused a huge amount of resources and energy consumption and associated CO2 and other emissions creating serious environmental problems on both local, regional and global scales [4-6]. Between 1990 and 2004 China’s total energy consumption has grown 5.0% annually from 18 EJ (108J) to 58 EJ, and CO2 emissions grew by 4.8% per year from 1446 million metric tons (MMT) to 4707 MMT. In 2006, China has become the largest CO2 emitter in the world, surpassing the US by an estimated 8% [7]. In response to the increasing pressures for the international committee the UN Climate Change Conference 2007 in Bali proposed that China, as large emitting country, will be expected to take on future targets regarding to mitigate Greenhouse gas emissions [8]. A recent speech given by president Hu Jintao of China to the United Nations General Assembly shows China’s willingness to curb emissions through increasing the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 15% by 2020 and increasing forest coverage by 40 million hectares and forest stock volume by 1.3 billion cubic meters by 2020 from the 2005 levels [9]. 

Changes of lifestyle, population and technology

We employ the I=PAT framework to examine the contribution to CO2 emissions (I) of population growth (P), affluence (A) (representing different lifestyles and consumption patterns) and CO2 intensity (T). The IPAT model allows to explicitly identify the relationship between the driving forces and environmental impacts[10]. In the following, we analyze the contribution of the three driving forces (Population, Affluence and CO2 intensity) to CO2 emissions in China from the inception of the open door policy in 1978 to today. After the economic reforms in 1978, China’s economy experienced an unprecedented growth of its economy. During the economic reform period China not only achieved rapid improvement of living standards, but also showed a comprehensive modernization of large sectors of the economy and fast improvement of technologies [1].

Table 1: CO2 emissions and driving forces in China (growth in %)




















Note: CO2 =Population*(Living expenditure/Population)*(CO2/Living expenditure), where CO2 is the impact (I), Population is P, Living expenditure/Population represents affluence (A), and CO2/Living expenditure represents CO2 intensity (T; emissions per unit of consumption).

From Table 1 above we can see that CO2 emissions in China increased by 49% from 1979 to 1988; then the growth rate slightly slowed to 44% during the next decade and increased again with 87% growth during the last decade. Over the observed time period of three decades, the results show that for China, affluence showed the highest growth rates, and thus has been the major contribution to China’s CO2 emissions. Although there were much improvement in emissions intensity with more than 60% reduction in the first two decades and another 22% reduction in the last decade, the improvement was overwhelmed by fast growth affluence levels more than doubling in each decade. The growth rate of population in China has decreased from 14% between 1979 and 1988 to 6% between 1999 and 2008; thus, the contribution of population for CO2 emissions was also relatively small. In order to better understand how people’s lifestyle changes drive the CO2 emissions growth, we carry out a case study for changes in energy consumption in China.

Changing energy consumption in China

The significant economic and lifestyle changes that have been taking place in China, have led the Chinese to require more and better quality of energy. People directly consume energy for lighting, cooking and other daily uses. But they also aspire to a ‘higher-quality life’ by purchasing fashionable goods and services, such as houses with air conditioning and other modern electrical household appliances, as well as increasingly services such as education, health or leisure activities. All these products and services consume energy during their production processes and usage. Domestic energy production cannot meet anymore the rapid increases of consumption requirements on both domestic and industrial usage; hence China has become a net energy importer in 1993. China has been speeding up exploration and development of energy sources (at home as well as abroad, e.g., in Sudan and Nigeria) to support its fast growing economy. In the following, we show changing consumption patterns exemplified on three important product categories that are indicative of some of the ongoing trends and lifestyle changes in China.


The outstanding increase of expenditure on housing shows people’s willingness to improve their immediate living conditions. Many rural households rebuilt and extended their bungalows by using building materials of concrete bricks and tiles instead of marl and woods. The average per capita living space expanded from 8.1 to 31.6m2 between 1978 and 2007 [11, 12]. In urban China, the problem of housing shortage was much more serious than in rural areas. The per capita net living space for urban residents was only 3.6m2 prior to 1978, mainly because of restrictions on private house ownership [13]. In the early 1980s, the Housing Reform Policy had been introduced to solve the problems of urban housing shortages and poor housing conditions. This policy encouraged commercialisation of the housing sector and private ownership allowing people to buy their own apartments. Meanwhile, the government, state-owned enterprises, domestic private companies and overseas developers invested significant funds into the urban housing development [13]. It is estimated that the total housing investment between 1979 and 1990 was 6.74% of total GDP [11]. As a result, city dwellers started to move from previously tiny bungalows or apartments to new multi-story apartment blocks; thus effectively increasing per capita net living space. People’s requirements on housing boosted the development of the construction sector. Directly associated with this was the amount of energy consumption in the construction sector which increased from 7.89 Mtce in 1980 to 145.3 Mtce in 2001 [11].

Household appliances

These more spacious living places allow consumers to buy and store more household appliances and other durable goods. For example, since the 1980s, urban residents spent increasing amounts on large durable furniture (e.g., wardrobes, beds and sofas). Also in the late 1980s and 1990s, the connection of a larger number of households to the electrical grid helped increase the sales for household electrical appliances. For example, purchases of Refrigerators and Colour TVs in urban areas have doubled in 2000 as compared to 1990 [11]. Colour TVs have already covered over half of rural households, and some urban households have more than one Colour TV [12], and other categories of electric appliances have been rapidly spreading throughout China. Another example is Air Conditioners, previously a sign of the wealthy, which increased significantly to about 30 sets per 100 households by 2000, and almost trebled between 2000 and 2008 (see Figure). Some modern appliances also increased rapidly in China, such as Computers and Mobile Phones. In 2000 Computers and Mobile Phones could be hardly found in Chinese family. However, more than half of urban household have Computer, and most of households have more than one Mobile Phones in 2008. At the same time, Mobile phones become very common communication tool in the rual areas[12]. The popularisation of household electronics enormously boosted the household appliance production. The electronic industry has become the largest industry in China, which contributed about 8–10% of GDP and 30% of exports in 2000 [11].

Residential energy consumption

There are huge differences of residential energy consumption between rural and urban households in terms of quality and quantity. Until recently, non-commercial energy sources such as stalks and firewood still dominated rural residential energy consumption patterns and contributed approximately 85% of residential energy in 1980 [14]. The overuse of biomass energy contributed to degradation of cultivated land and destruction of forest resources. Since the policy of biomass energy conservation and forestation was established in the mid-1990s, the absolute amount of biomass energy consumption has fallen from 250 Mtce in 1995 to around 200 Mtce in 2000. However, the total amount of residential energy is continuously growing, with major increases from commercial sources. The total amount of commercial energy consumption grew remarkably by 3.6 times, from 41Mtce in 1980 to 149 Mtce in 2000 [15]. Therefore, it is interesting to point out that the commercial energy for rural residential use will gradually replace biomass energy and become the major energy source in the future. At the same time also coal consumption shows a declining trend after 1988 due to the introduction of fuel-saving stoves. By the end of 1997, the fuel-saving stoves had been installed in 180 million rural households, which accounted for 89% of total rural households [16]

Urban household energy consumption has also undergone significant changes. In terms of heating, most urban areas still keep the traditional way of heating by burning coal. The increase of per capita net living space is likely to result in more coal being consumed. However, the previous type of individual heating has been switched to large-scale central heating as people moved from bungalows to apartment blocks, which effectively enhanced energy efficiency. Furthermore, many richer cites (e.g., Beijing) have installed the ‘consumer control system’ of heat supply to allow heat supply to best match demand. On the other hand, the government provides LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) or gas pipelines for people’s daily cooking instead of traditional cooking by burning coal, to reduce urban coal consumption and associated pollution. Per capita coal consumption for urban residential use rapidly declined from 348.5 kg/year in 1985 to 88.2 kg/year in 1999. Due to the outstanding growth of household electrical appliances for urban households, the per capita residential electricity consumption increased more than four times during 1985–1999. Electricity became the dominant source of energy in most Chinese cities, accounting for 59% of the total household energy consumption[11].


Lifestyles in urban China are beginning to resemble Western lifestyles making it likely that China will follow western trajectories with regards to CO2 emissions. It makes CO2 emissions easier to predict as China’s regions move to Western lifestyles [1]. We will thus probably observe a further move to services, a continuation of the housing boom and infrastructure development but eventually a decline in the share of capital investment as infrastructure reaches Western levels [6].

The speed of efficiency gains in production was not able to keep track with the growth in emissions due to growth in final consumption and associated production processes. In addition to the apparent inefficiencies in terms of production technologies there is also a lot of room for improvement on the consumer side as well as an awareness of the interaction of infrastructure and consumption. Future expenditures and consumer behavior depend to a large extent on the infrastructure that is built today. Consumers’ choices are bound by the availability of alternatives (such as public transport). Thus, the trajectory of future emissions needs to be addressed by the infrastructure choices of today [3]. In terms of the composition of the major consumption items there are little alternatives in sight as Chinese consumers try to emulate Western lifestyles and thus, inadvertently, western levels of emissions. This study emphasizes the need to guide people’s lifestyles towards more sustainable ways of living; this is also true for a developing country such as China, which is home to 22% of the world population and a growing middle class, and which is on a fast track to modernization.

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Hubacek, K. (2014). Lifestyle, technology and CO2 emissions in China. Retrieved from


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Richard Friesner wrote: 04-22-2011 09:46:40

This sounds great - I love talking about CC & China.

Darren Cambridge wrote: 04-22-2011 06:00:02

I want to talk about this b/c I used it in class.