Try this statistic on for size: If China's economy continues to grow at its current pace, and the Asian giant doesn't cut its rate of energy use, by 2030 it could be emitting as much carbon into the atmosphere as the entire world does today.
And here's another: As you read this, China is bringing on line coal-fired power plants – major sources of greenhouse-gas emissions – at the mind-boggling rate of two per week.
Yet China's No. 1 mandate isn't environmental protection, it's economic growth. And that's defensible. A rising standard of living helps ensure that the world's most-populous country remains stable, a goal that benefits both the Chinese people and the rest of the world.
The question of how China can both cut emissions and grow its economy at the same time "poses one of the greatest challenges of this century," declares a recent analysis in the journal Science.
All the Prius-driving, thermostat-lowering, and light-bulb changing going on in the rest of the world won't count for much unless China can radically reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions. This week, China made clear at a discussion of climate change at the United Nations that it considers itself a "victim" of global warming rather than one of the "culprits" causing it – i.e., the world's rich nations.
While China promises to play a positive role in battling the problem, Ambassador Yu Qingtai said, it should not be expected to be bound by the same caps on emissions as a "developed country."
Still, China is making some important strides. Already, for example, China is reforesting vast areas, despite receiving little international help in doing so. (Forests help absorb carbon-dioxide emissions.) China's forest cover increased from 12 percent in 1980 to 18 percent today, and should reach 26 percent by 2050. China also set a goal to reduce the energy intensity (the energy consumed to create each unit of gross domestic product) of its industries by 20 percent between 2006 and 2010.
If the world warms, China has much to lose: If sea levels on the Chinese coast rise just three feet due to warming – a real possibility by the end of the century – three big industrial regions will be flooded. That amounts to some 35,000 square miles, larger than the state of South Carolina.
Research also suggests that by 2030, climate changes such as more severe droughts stand to reduce Chinese agricultural output by 5 to 10 percent.
How, then, can the world influence China, a nation with one-fifth of the planet's population, a nation that has already passed the US to become the No. 1 emitter of greenhouse gases?
Engaging China in joint projects to develop technological solutions, such as alternative energy sources, is one possibility. China's dependence on its vast coal reserves makes it imperative that new ways are found to capture and bury carbon emissions from coal plants.
China has massive energy needs and must make a "great leap forward" in the way it meets them. Chinese leaders will be looking to the United States both to see what it is willing to do to help China and what sacrifices of its own it is willing to make.
Whoever wins the White House next fall must consider China and its energy-climate dilemma in coming up with a US carbon strategy.