By Emma Graham-Harrison and Chris Buckley
BEIJING, Oct 29 (Reuters) - China’s greenhouse gas emissions have caught up with the United States and will not any 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 China’s National Development and Reform Commission who steers climate change policy, marked a new official acknowledgement that China may be the world’s worst offender.
Many foreign 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 Xie would not give any 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 had produced the majority of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere during the course of their industrialisation.
Official acknowledgement that China is the biggest emitter is unlikely to shift Beijing’s position on climate change, but it may add international pressure on it as the world enters an intense phase of negotiations over a new global warming pact.
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, and 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. This will "cause huge losses to the national economy", the paper states.
Beijing issues white papers to spell out policies on controversial topics, and this one will be part of China’s arguments as it heads into intense negotiations.
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, a U.N.-led pact, poor nations do not assume targets to cap 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 in rich countries, and about a fifth of the U.S. average per person.
On Tuesday, a Chinese official said his government would next week issue a proposal for rich countries to dramatically increase flows of greenhouse gas-fighting technology to poor ones. He 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 (Organisation for Co-operation and Economic Development) paid up based on the size of their economies in 2007. (Editing by Nick Macfie)