|A coal mine in Yicheng, China. China's burning of coal has made it a major contributor to global warming. - Chang W. Lee/The New York Times|
LONDON, Nov. 6 - China will surpass the United States in 2009, nearly a decade ahead of previous predictions, as the biggest emitter of the main gas linked to global warming, the International Energy Agency has concluded in a report to be released Tuesday.
China's rise, fueled heavily by coal, is particularly troubling to climate scientists because as a developing country, China is exempt from the Kyoto Protocol's requirements for reductions in emissions of global warming gases. Unregulated emissions from China, India and other developing countries are likely to account for most of the global increase in carbon dioxide emissions over the next quarter-century.
The agency's prediction highlights the unexpected speed with which China is emerging as the biggest contributor to global warming. Still, China has resisted limits on its own emissions and those of other developing countries.
Up until now, Chinese officials have instead called repeatedly for even tighter limits on the industrialized countries' emissions of global warming gases after the Kyoto Protocol's limits expire at the end of 2012. China says rich countries bear responsibility for the increase in global carbon dioxide levels that has already taken place.
Moreover, the biggest current emitter of the gases, the United States, has rejected the protocol in part because most lawmakers and President Bush say its exemption for rising powers like China is unfair.
"You cannot tell people who are struggling to earn enough to eat that they need to reduce their emissions," said Lu Xuedu, the deputy director general of Chinese Office of Global Environmental Affairs, at a conference two weeks ago.
Chinese officials did not respond to attempts by phone and fax to obtain a response to the agency's forecast.
The energy agency also issued a sharp exhortation to all oil-consuming countries to rapidly curb their consumption or face higher prices and severe environmental damage, including changes in the global climate. But the agency acknowledged that any conservation would require a "considerable political push" from Western governments, as well as large developing economies like China and India, to reduce their use of hydrocarbons, including coal.
If nothing is done, global energy demand is projected to grow 53 percent by 2030, the energy agency said. Oil consumption is seen jumping to 116 million barrels a day, compared with 85 million barrels now, mostly because of increased oil consumption in developing countries.
Demand for coal, mostly for power generation, will rise 59 percent. As a result, energy-related carbon dioxide emissions will increase 55 percent, to 44.1 billion tons in 2030.
Environmental officials from around the world began meeting Monday in Nairobi to discuss a new agreement after the Kyoto Protocol. The talks, which are not expected to produce an agreement for at least a couple of years, are aimed partly at bringing the larger developing countries like China, India and Brazil under emission controls.
Developing countries have been wary of a deal. In addition to the United States, Australia has rejected the Kyoto Protocol, while Canada and Western European countries have found that their emissions have risen since 1990, instead of falling as the agreement required. The rise is particularly notable since 2000, according to fresh United Nations data.
Among developing countries, "there has been a loss of confidence, if I may say, since the developed countries, and particularly the largest ones, have not done more," said Rajendra K. Pachauri, India's best-known energy expert and the chairman of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
"They're going to shift the burden on us - that's the popular view," he said in a phone interview from New Delhi before flying to Nairobi.
The agency advocates improving the fuel efficiency of cars, expanding the use of nuclear power and financing biofuels research. It said those measures would more than pay for themselves by reducing oil imports.
"If we stick with business-as-usual policies, we are ending up with a world which is vulnerable, dirty and expensive," Fatih Birol, the agency's chief economist, said in an interview.
Investments needed to meet world growth in demand by 2030 are in the order of $20 trillion, the report estimated. But aggressive energy conservation policies could limit the increased oil demand to 103 million barrels a day by 2030. If that was done, carbon dioxide emissions would be 16 percent lower.
China has taken steps to improve energy conservation, though it has justified them mainly in terms of limiting reliance on imported oil and reducing air pollution. China has set fuel-economy requirements for new cars that are more stringent than the United States', but less stringent than the European Union's.
China has also begun requiring power companies to invest in larger coal-fired power plants instead of smaller power plants, which tend to require more coal per kilowatt-hour generated.
The energy agency took these steps into account in its prediction that China's carbon dioxide emissions would overtake those of the United States some time in 2009.
Mr. Birol said consumer nations would face even greater risks to their supplies because of their growing reliance on energy imports from a smaller number of countries, mainly in the Middle East. Domestic oil production in Western countries will peak in the next five or six years and then decline.
Worldwide coal consumption has risen as much in the last three years as it had in the previous 23 years, Mr. Birol said. China accounts for 90 percent of the increase, the result of steeply rising demand for electricity that is mostly generated by coal-fired power plants.
India is responsible for about 8 percent of the increase in coal use, and the United States for most of the rest, Mr. Birol said. The agency's forecast of China's carbon dioxide emissions also reflects a revised prediction that China's economy will grow 5.5 percent a year over the next quarter-century, slightly higher than previously expected, which will result in higher energy use.
"Strong policy action is needed to move the world onto a more sustainable growth path," the agency said in a statement with the report.
Carbon dioxide accounts for 80 percent of the world's manmade emissions of global warming gases. A variety of gases from industrial processes, plus methane from landfills and coal mines, account for the rest of these emissions; China's emissions of those gases is growing rapidly as well.
The global warming effects of China's rapidly increasing carbon dioxide emissions may have been masked until now by the country's high emissions of sulfur compounds, which form particles that reflect the sun's rays back into space. But the particles do not stay in the air nearly as long as the carbon dioxide, and China is now trying to reduce sulfur compounds because they cause acid rain and respiratory problems.
"Like the tortoise versus the hare, the carbon dioxide wins out in the long run," said Stephen E. Schwartz, a senior atmospheric scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y.
China is not alone in relying more on coal. The United States is counting on coal to fill its growing energy needs. And while Western European nations have been the most enthusiastic advocates of measures to address global warming, they have also started moving back to coal.
Britain has reopened several coal-fired power plants and imported coal lately because generating electricity from coal is much cheaper now than using oil or natural gas. Japan and Germany have both embarked on ambitious construction programs for new coal-fired plants as well.
A British government spokesman acknowledged that British coal consumption was rising, but noted that British coal users were offsetting the increase in carbon dioxide emissions by paying energy users elsewhere in the European Union to cut emissions.
But critics of this carbon trading plan say that European countries have estimated existing carbon dioxide emissions so high that it is easy for companies to come in below those levels and then declare that they have reduced emissions and therefore have credits to sell.
Myron Ebell, the director of energy and global warming policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a research group in Washington that is critical of limits on global warming emissions and receives financing from energy companies, said China's rapid rise would further hurt international efforts to rein in global warming gases.
"It's not just China that's blowing this thing apart," he said. "I don't see the Europeans cutting their emissions at all."
Jad Mouawad contributed reporting from New York.