By Barbara Lewis
LONDON, 18 April (Reuters) - China will overtake the United States as the world’s biggest emitter of heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2) either this year or next, the International Energy Agency said on Wednesday.
The estimate is much firmer than the IEA’s previous forecast, last November, that on current trends China would overtake the United States before 2010.
"Either this year or next year," IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol told Reuters, in answer to the question of when China would overtake the United States.
The IEA is energy adviser to 26 rich nations and Birol is a key author of the Paris-based agency’s annual World Energy Outlook report.
China is set to become the world’s top carbon emitter just as serious talks start to extend the U.N.-sponsored Kyoto Protocol on global warming beyond 2012, potentially heaping pressure on Beijing to take more action on climate change.
A copy of a so-far unpublished Chinese government global warming report, seen by Reuters, rejects binding caps on carbon emissions until the country’s modernisation, by the middle of this century, opting instead to brake emissions growth.
The United States, which pulled out of Kyoto in 2001, would not join a new climate change regime unless it also applied to China and India, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union said on Wednesday.
"There will be no comprehensive global warming legislation coming out of the United States... that does not include limits or a programme for China, India and the rest of the developing world," Ambassador C. Boyden Gray told Reuters in an interview ahead of an April 30 U.S.-EU summit.
Few Western climate negotiators expect China to accept caps from 2013 but do want to see a timeline for that.
LOW PER CAPITA EMISSIONS
Chinese officials point to their country’s relatively low per capita emissions of greenhouse gases, saying historically the main culprits are developed nations, who have no right to deny economic growth to others.
U.N. data for 2003 put the United States top with 23 percent of world carbon dioxide emissions and China second on 16.5 percent. U.S. individuals were far bigger emitters, at 20 tonnes per capita against China’s 3.2 tonnes and a world average of 3.7.
But China is catching up quick and is having to try to balance 10 percent annual economic growth with environmental and energy supply issues.
Latest data shows China is building a coal-fired power plant every four days, British foreign ministry official John Ashton said on Monday.
Growth in the emerging Asian giant’s emissions puts in perspective Western efforts to fight climate change, Birol said.
"What we do in Europe may be with good intentions, may be very ethical... but if you put it in terms of numbers its meaning is very limited."
A senior staff scientist at the U.S. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC) last month estimated it was very likely that China would overtake the United States this year, estimating China’s CO2 emissions in 2005 at 5.3 billion tonnes versus the United States’ 5.9 billion, but with China growing much faster.
China’s Office of the National Coordination Committee on Climate Change then said it could not comment because it did not have a reliable estimate of the country’s emissions.
(Additional reporting by Gerard Wynn in London and Paul Taylor in Brussels)