China’s energy consumption doubled within the first 25 years of economic reforms initiated at the end of the 1970s, and doubled again in the past 5 years. It has resulted of a threefold CO2 emissions increase since early of 1980s. China’s heavy reliance on coal will make it the largest emitter of CO2 in the world. By combining structural decomposition and input–output analysis we seek to assess the driving forces of China’s CO2 emissions from 1980 to 2030. In our reference scenario, production-related CO2 emissions will increase another three times by 2030. Household consumption, capital investment and growth in exports will largely drive the increase in CO2 emissions. Efficiency gains will be partially offset the projected increases in consumption, but our scenarios show that this will not be sufficient if China’s consumption patterns converge to current US levels. Relying on efficiency improvements alone will not stabilize China’s future emissions. Our scenarios show that even extremely optimistic assumptions of widespread installation of carbon dioxide capture and storage will only slow the increase in CO2 emissions.