Perhaps for the first time, a top Chinese official has admitted that the country's greenhouse gas emissions have caught up with the United States and are unlikely to fall in the future.
Xie Zhenhua, a deputy chief of China's National Development and Reform Commission, who steers climate change policy, also warned of a huge economic blow from global warming. His comments on Wednesday marked a new official acknowledgement that China may be the world's worst offender in greenhouse emissions.
Until now 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.
The US 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.
China faces shrinking harvests, worsening droughts in some regions, worsening floods in others, and melting glaciers as average global temperatures rise, Xie's report warns. "Climate change has already brought real threats to China's ecological system and economic and social development," he said.
But the report released by Xie also says China will nonetheless increase emissions of carbon dioxide. "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."
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.
Noting that India and China need to be part of the solution on climate change, the United States on Thursday said that it would like the two Asian giants to make significant investment in the success of a summit on climate change to be held in Copenhagen in December.
"What we want to see from India and China is a significant investment in the Copenhagen process," assistant secretary of state for public affairs P J Crowley told reporters at the daily state department press briefing in Washington.
"They have to be part of the solution if we are going to make progress in dealing with greenhouse gases," Crowley said. He was responding to a question based on an interview given by the Indian environment minister Jairam Ramesh to an Indian newspaper in which he said that India and China have agreed to work together on the issue of climate change to withstand the pressure from the west.