With China's carbon footprint expected to outsize America's within a year, officials in Beijing appear to be backing away from their view that global warming is a Western problem that developed countries must solve.
While still insisting on their right to industrialize hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty, Chinese leaders are showing the first tentative signs of readiness to accept mandatory emissions-reductions targets. And they are setting themselves all kinds of green goals.
As the world's No. 2 greenhouse-gas culprit – closing in on the 6 billion tons of CO2 produced by the US annually – China is under pressure both from other nations and from its own scientists' predictions of a potentially catastrophic future if global warming is not curbed.
"Climate change has become a huge challenge to China's social and economic sustained development," Zheng Guoguang, head of the China Meteorological Administration, said Monday. "China is determined to mitigate and respond to climate change as a responsible nation."
The signals of how it will do so are mixed. On the one hand, Premier Wen Jiabao announced earlier this month, on a visit to Japan, that his country would "proactively participate in building an effective framework from 2013" to replace the Kyoto Protocol's binding targets for greenhouse-gas reductions.
That regime, which will emerge from several years of global negotiations, seems certain to impose binding targets on every nation: At the moment, China is not obliged to meet any Kyoto standards because it is a developing country.
At the same time, China's first Climate Change Assessment Report, dated September 2006 but broadly distributed last weekend, rejects obligatory ceilings.
"If we prematurely assume responsibilities for mandatory greenhouse-gas emissions reductions, the direct consequence will be to constrain China's current energy and manufacturing industries and weaken the competitiveness of Chinese products," the report warns, adding that, "For a considerable time to come, developing the economy and improving people's lives remains the country's primary task."
Four months ago, the International Energy Agency (IEA) in Paris predicted that China would not be emitting more heat-trapping CO2 than the US until 2010. But with Chinese growth steaming ahead at an annual 11.1 percent so far this year, and with energy-intensive industries such as aluminum expanding by 43 percent, the energy watchdog has brought its estimate forward by two years.
Grim outlook if China doesn't act
If nothing were done, within 25 years China's emissions would be double the combined output of all industrialized nations, said Fatih Birol, the IEA's chief economist. That is largely because China is fueling its growth with coal, a noxious source of CO2 and other pollutants. As the largest producer and consumer of coal in the world, China uses the fossil fuel to generate 69 percent of its primary energy, according to official figures.
The effects are visible and getting worse, Chinese scientists are warning.
On the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, "one quarter of the glaciers that existed 350 years ago have disappeared," Qin Dahe, a former Chinese climate-change negotiator, said Monday. At current melt rates, "another quarter will disappear by 2050."
Those glaciers, he said, "are vital to people's economy and livelihood" in most of China and South Asia. "The water from these glaciers supports life for half the world's population."
"Climatic warming may have serious consequences for our survival environment, as China's economic sectors such as agriculture and coastal regions suffer grave negative effects," the Climate Change Assessment Report predicts.
Water shortages and high temperatures could reduce harvests by 10 percent by 2030; wheat, rice, and corn output could collapse by as much as 37 percent after 2050, the report says. "If we do not take any action, climate change will seriously damage China's long-term grain security."
Such grim prospects have prompted the government to set its own emissions goals. Most ambitiously, the new assessment pledges to reduce CO2 emissions per unit of GDP by 80 percent by 2050.
En route, the authorities are aiming for a 20 percent drop in energy use per GDP unit by 2010 – slightly more ambitious than President Bush's hope that US industry will voluntarily cut its emissions intensity by 18 percent by 2012.
Even if China reached half its goal, the resulting reductions in emissions growth would still be larger than the EU-15's Kyoto CO2 goal of cutting 682 million tons annually by 2012, according to the Center for Clean Air Policy in Washington.
China's goal is nearly in line with a target set by Greenpeace, which just released a report urging more use of renewable energy. "China has to get rid of its dependency on coal," said Yang Ailun, Greenpeace China's climate expert. "With enforcement of energy-efficiency targets and also the decision to close down 50 gigawatts of [China's] least-efficient coal-fired plants, the trend of massive coal-fired plant installment will be slowed from 2008."
The government has also set itself the target of producing 16 percent of energy needs from renewable resources by 2020, much of which would come from hydro if the authorities meet another 2020 target: to harness 70 percent of hydro potential.
A push for nuclear energy
At the same time, China is finalizing a deal with Westinghouse Electric to buy four third-generation nuclear-power plants, along with the technological know-how to build its plants in the future.
By 2020, China plans to have multiplied installed nuclear-generating capacity fivefold from 2000 figures, to 40 gigawatts.
The government cannot guarantee meeting these targets, however: Last year, officials say, energy use per unit of GDP fell by only 1.2 percent, instead of 4 percent. This was partly because regional governments – that know they are judged on economic growth rather than on their green credentials – simply ignored Beijing's environmental edicts. Even if China does reduce its energy use per GDP unit by 4 percent a year until 2010, its growth rate is so high that by current trends it will still be emitting 30 percent more greenhouse gases in 2010 than it did in 2005.
• Staff writer Mark Clayton contributed to this report.