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Is China outdoing US in curbing carbon?

Its plans to limit emissions and boost efficiency could undercut a key argument against carbon dioxide limits in the US.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 27, 2007

If the United States starts charging people and businesses for the greenhouse gases they emit but China does not, America's economy could fall behind its fast-growing Asian competitor.

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It's a crucial issue now bogging climate-change legislation on Capitol Hill. No lawmaker wants to push through laws that are likely to raise US energy costs and hand an advantage to global-warming scofflaws.

"I will not support major legislation imposed upon the American economic system ... unless and until we have brought the Chinese on board," said Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico, who serves on the committee that would move global-warming legislation, in a hearing last month.

But new evidence suggests that, despite a fast-growing economy that could make it the world's largest carbon-dioxide emitter as early as this year, China may be getting on board. In a bid to cut energy costs, boost energy security, and reduce air pollution, it could be essentially creating the largest greenhouse-gas-reduction plan on the planet.

Indeed, if the nation's leaders follow through, it may be the US playing catch-up with China – not the other way around. "You hear people in Washington saying we can't do anything if China doesn't do anything to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions," says Ned Helme, president of the Center for Clean Air Policy (CCAP), a Washington think tank. "But that's basically a myth. China is really doing quite a lot, not under treaty but on their own."

Make no mistake, China's greenhouse-gas emissions are projected to increase rapidly through 2020. With its roaring economy and demand for coal-fired power, China will surpass the US as the largest producer of greenhouse gases sooner than expected, perhaps this year instead of in 2010, International Energy Agency officials said this week.

Yet China's rate of growth in emissions could slow thanks to sweeping reforms, started in 2001, to slash energy use at cement, steel, and paper factories, and for automobiles, Mr. Helme's group reported this week. Those reforms are on track to cut 168 million tons of greenhouse gases by 2010, says the CCAP.

That's a pittance compared with the nearly 6 billion tons of carbon-dioxide China emits annually. But that amount nearly matches the Bush administration's goal of reducing US emissions, voluntarily, by 183 million tons a year by 2010, says the CCAP report.

That small start may be just the beginning for China. Last year it embarked on a dramatic plan to boost energy efficiency 20 percent nationwide by 2010, a move that could eliminate as much as 1.4 billion tons of carbon-dioxide emissions, according to a recent Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory analysis.

"They've really done a lot already to reduce emissions and improve energy efficiency," says Mark Levine, who heads the China Energy Group at the lab. He notes, however, that growth in coal-fired electric power between 2001 and 2005 has vastly increased Chinese emissions.

China is also currently lagging behind its ambitious 2010 efficiency goals, Dr. Levine says. Instead of a 4 percent energy-efficiency gain, the nation achieved only a 1.2 percent cut last year, the first year of the program. But even if China gets only halfway to its goal, the reductions in emissions growth would be larger than the EU's Kyoto goal of cutting 682 million tons annually by 2012, Helme says.