WITH 1.1 billion people, the world's largest known coal reserves, and a record of high-speed industrial growth, China threatens to gravely pollute the global environment in its pursuit of prosperity, experts say. Each year China consumes 1 billion tons of coal, which provides 75 percent of its energy needs. Most of the coal is burned raw, in its most polluting form, by city dwellers and factories. Only a quarter is converted into clean electric power. In the countryside, peasants burn wood and straw as major fuels for cooking and heating.
As a result, the country's emissions of greenhouse gases are the fourth largest in the world, and could rise considerably as its energy production expands.
By the year 2000, China's coal output is expected to grow to 1.5 billion tons a year to fuel the government's drive to double the current gross national product (GNP), Energy Ministry figures show.
Confronting these dire projections, Chinese and foreign experts met in Beijing last week to explore how China might break with the pattern of other third world countries and protect the environment in the course of industrialization.
``If China is prepared to plan, ... it could demonstrate that major industrializing countries can follow pathways of industrial development that minimize their impact on the global environment,'' said Martin Holdgate, director general of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, at the meeting.
The three-day conference was attended by high-ranking Chinese officials, environmental experts, and representatives from international aid organizations.
Participants emphasized that to achieve its twin goals of pollution control and economic growth, China must advance market-oriented economic reforms that will promote industrial efficiency and energy conservation.
``There is an inextricable link between the success of reform ... and environmental protection,'' says Peter Geithner, director of the Ford Foundation's Asia programs.
China's industries waste massive amounts of energy, with national energy consumption per dollar of GNP 5.3 times that of Japan, 2.3 times that of the United States, and 1.7 times that of the Soviet Union, Chinese officials told the conference.
``China's industry is still backward in technology on the whole,'' said Qu Geping, administrator of China's National Environmental Protection Agency. ``It is poor in quality, and highly energy consuming.''
If China used energy as efficiently as developed countries, it could reach the target of doubling GNP by the end of the century without any increase in its energy output, Mr. Qu said.
To encourage factories and households to conserve, China must allow low, state-controlled prices for natural resources and raw materials to rise to market levels, Chinese officials said.
``China should gradually reverse the pricing system where `natural resources have no price, raw materials have a low price, and processed goods have a high price,''' said Ma Hong, director of the Development Research Center of the State Council.
Beijing this month made unannounced increases in the prices its residents pay for coal briquettes and natural gas, Chinese sources say. But officials suggest that significant decontrol of energy prices is too politically risky.
``Present conditions are not ripe enough, the state has to impose control, to a certain extent, over the prices for energy,'' Mr. Ma said.
China should also tax energy consumption and speed the technological upgrading of its factories, only 20 percent of which have undertaken complete technological renovation during the past 10 years, officials said.
Meanwhile, they add, the government should attempt to reduce coal consumption by exploiting China's vast hydropower potential and promoting the use of methane gas, natural gas, and other cleaner energy sources.
China repeated its appeal for funding from international aid agencies to help implement pollution control programs. The government says that it cannot afford to spend all of the $46.7 billion it estimates it will need for the environment up until the year 2000.