China may lead in greenhouse gases

Times Staff Writer

It was only three months ago that international energy officials revised a prediction that China would surpass the United States as the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases by 2009 or 2010. It could happen, they warned, as early as the end of this year.

That may have been conservative.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. June 23, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 23, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
China emissions: An article in Thursday’s Section A about China’s emissions of greenhouse gases said the nation had not ratified the Kyoto Protocol. It did so in 2002.

China’s emissions of carbon dioxide, the most significant greenhouse gas, already have exceeded those of the United States, according to a report released this week by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.

The study estimated that the surging demand for power from China’s rapidly expanding economy caused carbon dioxide emissions to rise by 9% in 2006. That increase, coupled with a slight decline in the United States, meant that China’s emissions for the year surpassed those of the U.S. by 8%, the Dutch report said.

A top official of the International Energy Agency, considered the authoritative source on global energy use and fossil fuel emissions, said Wednesday that there was little practical difference between his estimates and those by the Dutch agency.

“It is either this year, or it was 2006, or it will be 2008,” said Fatih Birol, the agency’s chief economist.


He said that what is important is the way China and the richer countries of the industrialized world respond to the changing situation.

Neither the United States nor China have ratified the 1997 Kyoto Protocol setting limits on greenhouse gas emissions. And as recently as this month’s Group of 8 summit of leading industrialized nations in Germany, President Bush cited China as a reason for his continuing opposition to mandatory measures, which critics say impose specific standards on the most economically advanced nations but not on the developing world.

“We all can make major strides, and yet there won’t be a reduction until China and India are participants,” Bush told reporters at the G-8 conference. He supports non-mandatory goals.

The Dutch report signals a remarkable turn of events for a country that, though the world’s most populous, was a distant also-ran among energy consumers until the last several decades, when the Communist government began market-oriented economic reforms. It also underscores the urgency felt in other global capitals about reining in China’s greenhouse emissions.

“You know, it’s just a continuous growth in the economy here that doesn’t seem to slow down,” said Jostein Nygard, a senior environmental specialist with the World Bank who is in Beijing to consult with energy officials about the emissions issue.

In an interview Wednesday, the day after the Dutch report came out, Nygard said he couldn’t assess its validity but thought there was a good chance it was correct.

“When I’ve looked over these figures over the last year, I also have thought that we probably have underestimated how quickly China will surpass the United States as the world’s largest CO2 emitter,” he said.

In response to questions from The Times, Nygard called an official with China’s Energy Research Institute to ask whether the government could confirm the validity of the Dutch figures. The official said Chinese researchers were planning to study the report but that their own estimates were that emissions would surpass the United States this year.

The International Energy Agency, based in Paris, announced in April that it had revised its estimates about when China would become the largest contributor to greenhouse emissions.

Even if that already has occurred, China’s per capita emissions are only about one-eighth the average for the wealthier industrialized countries of Europe and North America, Birol said. At current projected growth rates, China’s per capita emissions in 2030 still will be only one-third those of the West, he added.

In response to the Dutch report, the Greenpeace chapter in China issued a statement Wednesday calling for “immediate actions” by the Chinese government to curb emissions and increase its share of renewable energy.

“However,” said Yang Ailun, who manages the Greenpeace campaigns on energy and climate issues in China, “responsibility for China’s soaring emissions lies not just in Beijing but also in Washington, Brussels and Tokyo. All the West has done is export a great slice of its carbon footprint to China and make China the world’s factory.”

The Dutch report was prompted by frustration over delays in compiling accurate assessments of global emissions.

For its annual surveys of energy use and emissions, the International Energy Agency relies on data supplied by each nation, and the reports generally lag by more than a year.

Jos Olivier, a senior scientist with the Dutch environmental agency, said those statistics are the most accurate but that he and others wanted to find a way to get more immediate figures. He relied primarily on energy data collected by British Petroleum and added information about cement production, a major source of greenhouse emissions from chemical reactions.

Olivier said he believed his figures were fairly reliable. In a telephone interview from his office in the Netherlands, he said his calculations showed that carbon dioxide emissions by the United States declined 1.4% in 2006 -- very close to the official figure of 1.3% released in May by the U.S. Department of Energy.

U.S. emissions declined partly because of mild weather in 2006, and partly because of increased use of natural gas instead of dirtier forms of fossil fuel, the Energy Department said.

China’s emissions have outpaced predictions because the economy has grown faster than expected. With construction booming, China produces an estimated 44% of the world’s cement, Olivier said. And with its factories’ fuel needs rising, China has been completing construction of coal-fired power plants at a rate of about two a week.

In the next eight years, the International Energy Agency estimates, China will build as many power plants as exist today in all of the European Union countries. Birol said the West needs to find incentives to help China invest in cleaner forms of energy than coal, because when coal plants come on line, they generally last decades.

“We do not have much time to change those trends,” he said.