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Atmospheric observations in China show rise in emissions of SF6; potent greenhouse gas commonly used in electric power grids

Used primarily in high-voltage electrical switchgear in electric power grids, sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) is one of the most potent greenhouse gases on Earth. The GWP of SF6 is 24,300 that of CO2, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report (AR6).

In the 21st century, atmospheric concentrations of SF6 have risen sharply along with global electric power demand. This heightened demand for electric power is particularly pronounced in China, which has dominated the expansion of the global power industry in the past decade.

A study by researchers at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, Fudan University, Peking University, University of Bristol, and Meteorological Observation Center of China Meteorological Administration has now determined total SF6 emissions in China over 2011–2021 from atmospheric observations collected from nine stations within a Chinese network, including one station from the Advanced Global Atmospheric Gases Experiment (AGAGE) network.

For comparison, global total emissions were determined from five globally distributed, relatively unpolluted “background” AGAGE stations, involving additional researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and CSIRO (Australia). The open-access study appears in the journal Nature Communications.

The researchers found that SF6 emissions in China almost doubled from 2.6 Gigagrams (Gg) per year in 2011 when they accounted for 34% of global SF6 emissions, to 5.1 Gg per year in 2021, when they accounted for 57% of global total SF6 emissions. This increase from China over the ten-year period—some of it emerging from the country’s less-populated western regions—was larger than the global total SF6 emissions rise, highlighting the importance of lowering SF6 emissions from China in the future.


a) The top–down SF6 emissions in China derived by nine sites in China in this study were compared to the top–down global SF6 emissions derived by recent global AGAGE background observations and an atmospheric box model. b) The increase in SF6 emissions from China between 2011-2013 and 2019-2021 was compared to the corresponding global total increase. An et al.

Emissions of SF6 are expected to last more than 1000 years in the atmosphere, raising the stakes for policymakers in China and around the world.

Any increase in SF6 emissions this century will effectively alter our planet’s radiative budget—the balance between incoming energy from the sun and outgoing energy from the Earth—far beyond the multi-decadal timeframe of current climate policies. So it’s imperative that China and all other nations take immediate action to reduce, and ultimately, eliminate, their SF6 emissions.

—MIT Joint Program and CGCS Director Ronald Prinn, coauthor

The study was supported by the National Key Research and Development Program of China and Shanghai B&R Joint Laboratory Project, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and other funding agencies.


  • An, M., Prinn, R.G., Western, L.M. et al. (2024) “Sustained growth of sulfur hexafluoride emissions in China inferred from atmospheric observations.” Nat Commun doi: 10.1038/s41467-024-46084-3



The stuff is also is also used as a dielectric insulator in microwave waveguides where it may be routinely released during component replacement.

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