BEIJING - China will overtake the United States as the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases this year - far earlier than predicted and making the task of tackling climate change even more difficult.
The Chinese economy, which is growing at 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 said yesterday.
Less than three years ago the Paris-based IEA forecast that China would overtake the US as the world's biggest polluter not before 2025. More recently it said that China would be first by 2010.
That has been revised because of the growth of its economy - 10 per cent annually for the past three years and now higher - and its underlying power sector.
IEA estimates that the Chinese, who in 2006 are thought to have emitted about 5600 million tonnes of carbon dioxide to the Americans' 5900 million, will this year emit about 6020 million to about 5910 million from the US. These emissions cause the atmosphere to warm, with potentially disastrous consequences.
The development underlines the importance of June's G8 summit at Heiligendamm in Germany, where the world's rich nations will meet 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 other developing nations are considered critical to preventing global warming.
The IEA's chief economist, Fatih Birol, said yesterday that their growth will swamp any cuts that industrialised countries can make in their own emissions. Birol said that in the next eight years alone, the Chinese would install as much energy generating plant as exists today in all 25 countries of the European Union - a total of 800 gigawatts. Ninety per cent of this would be coal-fired - producing the most CO2 - and 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. 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 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.
In The Balance
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 more than 2 billion tonnes of coal per year. Sulphur dioxide and soot caused by coal combustion result in acid rain, which now falls on about 30 per cent of its 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.