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BEIJING (Reuters) - China's greenhouse gas emissions have caught up with the United States and will not fall any time soon, a top Chinese official said on Wednesday, while warning of a huge economic blow from global warming.
The comments from Xie Zhenhua, a deputy chief of the National Development and Reform Commission who steers climate change policy, marked China's first official acknowledgement that it could already be the world's biggest greenhouse gas polluter.
Many experts believe China's output of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas from burning fossil fuels, has already outstripped the United States, for over a century the world's biggest emitter.
Until now, however, Chinese officials have hedged on the issue and have released no new government data on emissions growth for the past 14 years. Nor did Xie give specific numbers.
"Based on information we have at hand, our total emissions are about the same as the United States," he told a news conference to release a government paper on climate change.
"Whether or not we have surpassed the United States is not in itself important," he added, noting that rich countries during their own economic take-offs had produced nearly all the greenhouse gases from human activity already in the atmosphere.
Official acknowledgement that China could be the biggest emitter is unlikely to shift Beijing's position on climate change. But it underscores the giddying expansion of the nation's power plants, factories and vehicles, and may add international pressure on it as the world enters an intense phase of negotiations over a new global warming pact.
Even several years ago, scientists expected China to surpass the United States in CO2 emissions only in 2019 or later.
The U.S. Oak Ridge National Laboratory has estimated the United States emitted 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon from burning fossil fuels in 2007, compared to China's 1.8 billion tonnes.
Total world emissions were about 8.5 billion tonnes.
Beijing has said it wants to combat climate change yet ensure China's economic take-off is not dragged down. Xie's comments and the government "white paper" reflected the uneasy fit between those concerns.
China faces shrinking harvests, worsening droughts in some regions, worsening floods in others, and melting glaciers as average global temperatures rise, the report warns.
"Climate change has already brought real threats to China's ecological system and economic and social development," said Xie.
But the report released by Xie also says China will nonetheless increase emissions of carbon dioxide, as it seeks to lift hundreds of millions of its poor into prosperity.
"China will strive for rational growth of energy demand," it states. "However, its coal-dominated energy mix cannot be substantially changed in the near future, thus making the control of greenhouse gases rather difficult."
Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases trap solar radiation, threatening to heat the atmosphere to levels that scientists warn could unleash disastrous disruption.
China will be at the heart of efforts to forge a successor to the current Kyoto Protocol, which expires at the end of 2012. Governments hope to reach agreement by the end of 2009.
Under the current Protocol, poor nations do not assume targets to curb emissions. But the European Union wants developing nations to sign on to firmer goals, and Washington has refused to ratify Kyoto partly because it says the treaty is ineffective without Beijing's acceptance of mandatory caps.
Xie pointed out that China's per capita emissions of its 1.3 billion people remain much lower than rich countries', and about a fifth of the U.S. average per person.
He also said about a fifth of the country's emissions came from making goods for export, and called on consumer nations to shoulder some responsibility for this.
On Tuesday, a Chinese official said developed countries should devote 1 percent of their economic worth to helping developing countries combat climate change.
Xie offered a more precise estimate of how much money China expects rich countries to give poor ones to fight climate change.
"I think it would be okay if at least 0.7 percent of developed countries' GDPs is used to help developing countries respond to climate change," he said.
This would mean a total $284 billion a year if all members of the OECD (Organization for Co-operation and Economic Development) paid up based on the size of their economies in 2007.
Editing by Nick Macfie and Roger Crabb