China's rapid industrialisation and rising wealth means that it will become a bigger emitter of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas blamed for global warming, than the United States by 2010, an authoritative report says.
The International Energy Agency (IEA), which advises industrialised countries, predicted that global carbon dioxide emissions would increase by 55 per cent between now and 2030, unless "urgent" action was taken by governments and consumers.
China will account for 39 per cent of the increase in carbon dioxide, as its emissions more than double in the period to 2030. This is largely because it is reliant on getting its electrical power from "dirty" coal-fired power stations, rather than relatively clean gas-fuelled plants. It will overtake the US as the world's biggest emitter before 2010, the IEA said, a decade earlier than other forecasts have suggested.
China's dominant role in rising greenhouse gas emissions is one of the trickiest issues for global environmental policy. As a developing country, China is exempt from the provisions of the Kyoto protocol that oblige countries such as the UK to reduce their emissions. This is one major reason cited by the US for not ratifying the Kyoto treaty and remaining outside global policy efforts to reduce the level of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere.
The IEA said that developing countries would account for three-quarters of the increase in global carbon dioxide emissions between now and 2030, passing the OECD group of 26 industrialised countries by around 2012. The overall share of developing countries in world emissions is predicted to rise from 39 per cent at present to 52 per cent by 2030, with other Asian countries, notably India, also contributing heavily to the increase.
The IEA said: "This increase [from developing countries] is faster than that of their share in energy demand, because their incremental energy use is more carbon-intensive than that of the OECD and transitional economies. In general, they use more coal and less gas." China and India have argued that it is up to industrialised countries to curb their emissions, and that they should not ask developing countries to sacrifice their economic growth or employ more expensive energy technologies.
Fatih Birol, chief economist at the IEA, agreed that China should not be blamed. Speaking after the launch of the IEA's annual World Energy Outlook yesterday, Dr Birol said: "To put a penalty on China would be unfair. After all, coal fuelled the industrial revolution in the UK."
The IEA called for China to make its coal-fired power plants more efficient. By bringing these generators up to Western standards, China can save massive amounts of energy and thereby reduce its emissions, the organisation said.
Although the absolute level of emissions from developing countries will soon surpass that of the developed world, measured on a per capita basis, poor nations will remain far behind. The IEA predicted that in OECD countries, emissions would rise from 11.02 tons per person in 2004 to 11.98 tons in 2030. For the non-OECD, emissions would grow from 2.45 tons per person, to 3.55 tons in 2030.
The IEA also said that it was imperative to persuade the world's poorest people to switch to "modern" energy for their cooking needs. Some 2.5 billion people rely on "biomass" materials, such as fuelwood, charcoal, agricultural waste and animal dung, for cooking, rather than gas.
The reliance on biomass, had "serious adverse consequences for health, the environment and economic development". For instance, it led to land degradation and air pollution.
* The Chinese government's decision to reduce the number of Tibetans on Lhasa's ruling body raises concerns about the role of Tibetans in administering the region, Human Rights Watch says. Appointments made in September to the Chinese Communist Party's committee in Lhasa, which in effect runs Tibet's capital, have a lower proportion of Tibetans than at any time in the past 40 years. For the first time in 25 years, the Lhasa committee is to be led by an ethnic Chinese politician. Tibetans have faced political repression since China's annexation of Tibet in 1951.