updated 7/2/2007 4:01:51 AM ET 2007-07-02T08:01:51

It’s China’s turn on the climate hot seat.

Last month energy analysts announced that China’s booming economy has propelled it past the United States as the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, the atmospheric pollutant that is primarily responsible for global warming. China emitted 8 percent more carbon dioxide than the United States in 2006, according to a report released in June by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.

The milestone has reignited a perennial debate between developing and developed countries: Who should take responsibility for preventing catastrophic global warming?

At a meeting in Singapore this month of the World Economic Forum on East Asia, delegates from China and Malaysia complained that calls to limit their carbon dioxide emissions are economically unjust.

“This is green imperialism,” protested Malaysia’s deputy finance minister, Nor Mohamed Yakcop.

Developing nations have insisted that rich Western economies take the lead in shifting to a low-carbon economy, since they are the ones who have pumped the lion’s share of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to date. But there is no avoiding the fact that if China, India and other rapidly modernizing countries grow in the same unsustainable way the West has over the past 150 years, catastrophic global warming will result.

“Without the participation of the United States, China and India — the main emitters — we will not stop global warming,” Japanese Environment Minister Masatoshi Wakabayashi said at the Singapore meeting.

Unfortunately, those three countries — along with Australia — have traditionally been the major holdouts against an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Australia and the United States refused to join the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which requires developed countries to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions to 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. China and India agreed to sign the accord only because as developing countries, they have no responsibility to limit their emissions.

Development a priority
Officials in both China and India insist that economic development must come first.

“It is a fact that more and not less development is the best way for developing countries to address themselves to the issues of preserving the environment,” Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said before leaving for last month’s G-8 summit in Germany.

But countries like India and China aren’t helping the environment when they build coal-fired power plants and shun mass transit for auto-centric transportation. Coal releases more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than any other energy source, and it supplies two-thirds of China’s power. Over the next five years, the country expects to complete at least one new coal-fired power plant a week.

In India, where several automakers are competing to provide affordable cars to the country’s enormous middle class, there were 300,000 cars registered last year in Delhi alone. The government openly acknowledges that it expects the country’s carbon dioxide emissions to more than quintuple by 2031, which would put India about where the United States is now in terms of emissions.

Governments in developing countries are not completely blind to the importance of taking steps against global warming.

“As a developing country of responsibility, China attaches great importance to the issue of climate change,” a report on the nation’s climate change program declared last month. The report laid out a plan to increase energy efficiency 20 percent over 2005 levels by 2010.

But that effort, even if it succeeds, will do little to slow the growth of China’s carbon dioxide emissions. China now emits nearly three times as much carbon dioxide as it did in 1990. Its emissions will easily double again by 2030, according to projections by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

But as Chinese officials are quick to point out, the country still lags far behind developed countries in per capita carbon dioxide emissions. China pumps about 10,500 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per person annually, compared to 42,500 pounds for the United States.

And much of the growth in China’s emissions results from the manufacture of goods for export to developed countries.

“Companies that are polluting in China are owned by American, European, Japanese and others. They are benefiting from cheap labor, from the resources, and at the same time accusing China of pollution,” Malaysia’s deputy finance minister complained.

First world promises
Developed countries have also failed to take significant steps toward cutting their own carbon dioxide emissions. President Bush’s recent proposal for international negotiations on carbon dioxide reductions was interpreted by environmentalists as a mostly empty gesture, an attempt to forestall any meaningful agreement on global warming by the G-8 nations at their annual summit last month in Heiligendamm, Germany.

If that was in fact Bush’s intention, it succeeded. The G-8 agreed to “consider seriously” halving carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, but failed to reach German Chancellor (and G-8 chair) Angela Merkel’s goal of committing to the target.

“It was a disgrace disguised as an achievement,” Al Gore griped.

Democrats in Congress have largely abandoned hope of enacting major global warming legislation before the end of President Bush’s term. About the most they can hope for is an increase in fuel economy standards to 35 miles per gallon, thanks to legislation that passed the Senate in June and is pending in the House.

The European Union has been much more aggressive than the United States in committing to carbon dioxide reductions, signing onto the Kyoto Protocol and committing this spring to a 20 percent emissions reduction by 2020.

But meeting that commitment has been difficult. The European Commission reported in June that its member nations had reduced carbon dioxide emissions just 2 percent since signing the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. At that rate, there is no way Europe will reach the 8 percent reduction the protocol requires by 2012.

That means that a decade after Kyoto no major economic power — not United States, not China, not Europe — has actually done anything significant to confront global warming.

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