BEIJING Greenhouse gas emissions from the three biggest Chinese power firms in 2008 were higher than those of the entire United Kingdom, activist group Greenpeace said on Tuesday in a report that called for an environmental tax on coal.
The emissions-intensive fuel provides China with well over two-thirds of its electricity, and years of booming energy demand have had a massive impact on the Asian giant's carbon footprint.
China's 10 biggest power generators burned through a combined 600 million tons of coal last year alone, or around one fifth of the country's entire output, the report said.
They are reliant on the dirty fuel because it is cheap and the country has vast reserves that can meet most domestic demand.
"By burning 20 percent of China's coal in 2008, the (10 power) companies emitted an equivalent of 1.44 billion tons of carbon dioxide," the report said.
The country's three largest firms by installed generating capacity -- China Huaneng Group, China Datang Corp and China Guodian Corp -- were responsible for more than half of those greenhouse gases, or 769 million tons, the report said.
Greenpeace calculated emissions estimates by using fuel data combined with Chinese government figures on the amount of carbon dioxide produced when coal is burned in China's power stations.
In contrast, the provisional estimate for total 2008 emissions in the United Kingdom -- which has power generating capacity barely one-tenth of China's -- is 623.8 million tons.
The need to fuel rapid economic growth and worries about compromising energy security mean China will not turn away from coal in the short-term.
China is the world's biggest annual emitter of greenhouse gasses but on a per capita basis and over the course of history it is far outpaced by Western nations that have smaller populations and have enjoyed decades of emissions intensive growth.
But Greenpeace said it wanted Beijing to curb output of greenhouse gasses by putting an environmental tax on coal prices and set tighter efficiency and renewable energy targets.
The report also underlined China's progress in shutting down its least efficient, small power stations.
Generating capacity equivalent to more than all of Australia's installed capacity, or some 54 gigawatts (GW), has been taken offline over the past three and a half years.
This has helped cut the coal used to generate each unit of power to 350 grams per kilowatt hour or less at the big firms. Another 31 GW are scheduled to go by the end of 2012.
China says it is already working hard to curb growth in emissions, but should not be asked to take any steps that would undermine economic growth when it still has millions of citizens living in poverty.
Beijing wants rich nations to offer more technical and financial support to developing nations seeking greener growth.
(Reporting by Emma Graham-Harrison, Editing by Dean Yates)