It's now official: China emits more greenhouse gases than any other country. Which is to say, more than the United States, which had that dubious distinction until now.
But it's too simplistic to tag China as the chief climate-change culprit.
Individually, Americans produce much more carbon dioxide and other global-warming gases than the Chinese do. That's because the US has about one-fourth of China's population. Also, much of China's economic growth, driven by hundreds of new coal-fired power plants, goes to make goods shipped to advanced markets – Japan, Europe, and the good old US of A.
News of China's new global-warming rank came from the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, which announced Friday that "according to preliminary estimates for 2006, China topped the list of CO2 emitting countries, surpassing the USA by an estimated 8 percent."
"It's an expression of their fast industrial production activities and their fast development," Jos G.J. Olivier, the agency's senior scientist, told the Associated Press.
Environmentalists jumped on the news.
Yang Ailun of Greenpeace China called on the country to take more steps to protect the environment, according to Time magazine. In a statement quoted by AP, she also stressed the global nature of the problem:
"Due to the urgency of climate change, China has the responsibility to take immediate action to reform its energy structure and curb its CO2 emissions...." "All the West has done is export a great slice of its carbon footprint to China and make China the world's factory. This trend has kept the price of projects in the West down, but led to a climate disaster in the long term."
Chinese officials argue this line as well. At a news briefing in Beijing covered by the AP, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang called China the "world's factory" and said criticism of its emissions was unfair.
"The developed countries move a lot of manufacturing industry into China. A lot of the things you wear, you use, you eat are produced in China.... On the one hand, you shall increase the production in China, on the other hand you criticize China on the emission reduction issue.''
Others in the developing world agree.
"This is green imperialism," Nor Mohamed Yakcop, Malaysia's deputy finance minister, told a panel at the World Economic Forum on East Asia in Singapore this week, as quoted by the AP. He continued:
"Companies that are polluting in China are owned by American, European, Japanese [firms], and others. They are benefiting from the cheap labor, from the resources, and at the same time accusing China of pollution."
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) recently warned that emissions of carbon dioxide from Asia's six largest nations will more than triple by 2030, said a story by the Inter-Press Service.
ADB president Haruhiko Kuroda said this week that the bank will push for clean energy sources, conservation, cap-and-trade schemes, and emission taxes on greenhouse gases. "Clean energy, including energy efficiency and renewable energy, needs to be actively promoted," he said.
Knowing that it would inevitably be the No. 1 greenhouse-gas emitter, China has felt pressure from within as well as outside its borders on climate change, Isabel Hilton writes in a commentary in the online site of Britain's Guardian newspaper. She continues:
"They include severe long-term water shortages, potential inundation of east coast cities, and falling agricultural yields. And, diplomatically, China's pole position as leading emitter will have a negative impact on its unthreatening international image of a 'peacefully rising' power, an image it has devoted considerable effort to promote."
Unlike the developed world, Ms. Hilton adds, "China does not have a hundred years in which to clean up, nor is there a developing world to which it can export its polluting industries, as the world did to China."
For years, China's exemption from having to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions under the Kyoto Protocol has grated on US policymakers. It's one major reason the US Senate unanimously rejected Kyoto in 1997. It's also been one of the Bush administration's main arguments against the protocol.
Even critics of the administration acknowledge that the Kyoto Protocol needs major fixing in a way that includes rapidly developing countries.
"Bush is correct about one thing: Kyoto is a mess," the Los Angeles Times editorialized recently.
"The president has rightly forced other world leaders to address one of the major flaws of the pact, which is that it doesn't apply to emerging economic giants such as China and India."
Although most Americans aren't happy with Bush's record on the environment – especially on climate change – a plurality still thinks that "signing the treaty would put the US economy at a disadvantage to China and India," according to a new UPI/Zogby poll.
Earlier this month, China unveiled its first national plan for climate change. According to a BBC report, the goal is to reduce energy use by one-fifth before 2010 and increase the amount of renewable energy the country produces. Said Ma Kai, chairman of China's National Development and Reform Commission:
"China is a developing country. Although we do not have the obligation to cut emissions [under the Kyoto Protocol], it does not mean we do not want to shoulder our share of responsibilities."
Shouldering those responsibilities will take major effort. China currently depends on coal to meet two-thirds of its energy needs, and the country is building an average of one new coal-fired power plant every week.
But no matter who's No. 1 in greenhouse-gas emissions, it'll take a global effort to deal with climate change.
Instead of blaming China "for the reckless pursuit of its own short-term interests," industrialized countries must "put our money where our mouth is," Hilton argues in her commentary, adding:
"This means drastically reducing our own emissions and helping China with the finance and technology required to move to a sustainable, low-carbon economic system."