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The Great Pall of China

Explosive growth means China will overtake America this year as world's biggest producer of greenhouse gases

Source:  Copyright 2007, Independent (UK)
Date:  April 25, 2007
Byline:  Michael McCarthy and Clifford Coonan
Original URL: Status DEAD

In a seismic shift for the world, China will overtake the United States as the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases this year, far earlier than thought - and present the problem of tackling climate change in even more difficult terms.

The Chinese economy, which is now growing at the unprecedented rate of 11 per cent annually, is sending carbon emissions from China's mushrooming coal-fired power stations beyond those of the whole of the US, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said yesterday.

Less than three years ago the Paris-based IEA forecast that China would overtake the US as the world's biggest polluter - but not before 2025. More recently it said that China would be first by 2010.

Now, however, the growth of its economy (10 per cent annually for the past three years and now higher) and its underlying power sector are such, said the Fatih Birol, the IEA's chief economist, that the Chinese are expected to overtake the Americans this year.

IEA estimates that the Chinese, who in 2006 are thought to have emitted about 5,600 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) to the Americans' 5,900, will this year emit about 6,020 million tonnes of CO2 to about 5,910 from the US. (Britain by contrast emits about 550 million tonnes.) It is these emissions from around the world which are causing the atmosphere to warm, with potentially disastrous consequences.

The development underlines the critical importance of this June's G8 summit at Heiligendamm in Germany, where the world's rich nations will meet with the five leading developing countries led by China and India - and attempt to build the framework of a new international climate change agreement. The future emissions of China, India and their fellows are increasingly recognised as the key to the future in preventing global warming. As Mr Birol said yesterday, their growth will swamp any cuts that the industrialised countries can make in emissions of their own; developed country cuts would have a "minimal" effect on the future C02 position compared to Chinese growth. "There is an order of magnitude of difference," he said.

The Chinese and the others are fiercely resistant to the idea of CO2 cuts being imposed on them, as they feel they should be entirely free to pursue economic growth, just as western countries have done for 200 years. They also still have much lower carbon emissions in per capita terms than do western nations.

Under the Kyoto protocol, the international climate change treaty which runs out in 2012, only the developed nations have to make emissions cuts. China has its own targets for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects, but it has no targets for emissions, although this week it was due to unveil its first plan for dealing with climate change. This appears to have been delayed.

Mr Birol emphasised the scale of the problem yesterday by pointing out that in the next eight years alone, the Chinese would install, as new, as much energy generating plant as currently exists today in all of the 25 countries of the expanded European Union- a total of 800 gigawatts.

Ninety per cent of this would be coal-fired, that is, producing the most C02, and most of this, he said, would last for 50 to 60 years - "you can't shut down a power station after five or 10 years as that would be economic suicide". He said: "If we can't influence China and India in their coming energy business decisions, we will be locked in, and we will have to live with the consequences for half a century or more."

The next few years will be crucial in trying to divert China and India's runaway growth, which cannot be stopped, down a low-carbon path. This will involve transferring to them technology such as carbon capture and storage, where CO2 from power stations is liquefied and buried deep underground, and developing new markets in carbon trading and low-carbon goods and services. "We're going to have to figure out pretty quickly how Europe and China can work together to come up with a carbon-neutral coal option," said Tom Burke, a leading environmentalist.

Britain has led the way in recognising the urgency of an agreement to this effect, having begun the "Gleneagles dialogue" about it with the developing nations at the G8 summit in Scotland inn 2005. The climate section of the Heiligendamm meeting, the "G8 plus 5", where Britain is giving strong support to the German G8 presidency, will attempt to sketch out such an agreement.

It has five proposed headings: a long-term stabilisation goal for the climate; the development of a global carbon market; the development and scaling-up of new technology; the reduction of deforestation; and assisting countries already threatened by climate change, such as low-lying islands threatened by sea-level rise, to take preventative action.

Tony Blair will be working with the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, to get the eight heads of state to agree, and a new climate pact would one of the crowning achievements of his time in office.

But a pact is made much more difficult by the fact that the US, which could be the international leader in switching the world economy on to a low-carbon growth path, has taken no such lead, and has withdrawn from Kyoto. The Chinese and Indians are much less likely to come on board if the US remains outside.

Britain's special representative for climate change, John Ashton flew to China last night on a mission to explore how trade policy could influence the development of markets in low-carbon technology. He said of the news that China would overtake the US as the leading greenhouse gas emitter: "I think what this does is increase even more than we understood hitherto the urgency of the process and the scale of the response needed. It is about a structural transformation of the global economy, from high-carbon to low-carbon, that we need to make together. It is even more urgent than we thought it was."

A booming nation


China's economy continues to grow at a staggering rate, rarely dipping below 10 per cent over the past four years. Growth in the first quarter of this year was 11.1 per cent compared with 10.4 per cent in the final three months of 2006. The government had said it was aiming for an annual growth rate of 8 per cent to curb development which harms the environment


China is the world's biggest coal producer, burning over 2 billion tonnes of coal per year. Sulphur dioxide and soot caused by coal combustion result in acid rain,

which now falls on approximately 30 per cent of China's total land area. Oil consumption in China has doubled in the past 20 years. Sixteen of the world's most air-polluted cities are in China.

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