China's Cities Fuel Global Warming

China's urbanization is a major cause of climate change, the International Energy Agency says.
By Michael Lelyveld
2008-11-25
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BOSTON--China's cities will be major contributors to global warming in coming decades as the country's energy use doubles, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said in an annual report.

Energy use and urbanization are both growing at rapid rates in China, the Paris-based IEA said in its latest World Energy Outlook released on Nov. 12. China already consumes as much energy as the United States and will use twice as much by 2030, according to the agency's estimates.

Most of China's energy consumption is taking place in cities. In 2006, urban areas accounted for three-quarters of national energy use, a share that will rise to 83 percent over the next 22 years. China's urban population has been growing by over 3 percent per year, helping to fuel the trend.

The country's per capita energy use has been rising even faster, in part because city dwellers consume more than rural residents, the IEA said.

Chinese officials often argue that the country's energy consumption lags far behind industrialized nations on a per capita basis, but the IEA forecasts that even China's per capita energy use will surpass that of Europe by 2030. China will account for two-thirds of the world's growth in coal consumption and 43 percent of increased oil use during that period, according to the 570-page report.

The IEA has called on countries around the world to rein in excess consumption and develop new technologies to cut carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions that cause climate change.

"The consequences for the global climate of policy inaction are shocking," the report said, citing U.N. predictions that greenhouse gases could raise average world temperatures by up to 6 degrees Celsius (10 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century.

Collision course


The impact of China's development will outweigh that of any other country during the period through 2030, according to IEA data. "China alone accounts for 49 percent of the global increase in emissions," the agency said.

"This is truly staggering," said Mikkal Herberg, research director of the energy security program at the Seattle-based National Bureau of Asian Research, in a Radio Free Asia interview. "It's going to be literally a tsunami of CO2 emissions coming from China."

Herberg said that China's urban development is on a collision course with the environment.

"This is simply not a sustainable trajectory that they're on, globally or for China itself in terms of urban air pollution and health," he said.

China's pace of development highlights the need for new environmental technology, energy efficiency, and conservation, said Herberg, but concerns for economic growth continue to take precedence over pollution.

"I'm just not sure there's the will to move fast enough in the Chinese leadership to make much of a dent in that," he said.

Robert Ebel, senior adviser in the energy and national security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the global warming debate has been stuck in arguments about the past effects of Western industrialization. China believes it should have the chance to catch up as an industrial power rather than curb its emissions.

Tough choices

"Its approach is that 'All these current problems are all your fault,'" Ebel said. "'Now, you want us not to grow, not to give our people a better life.'"

The mounting problems of urbanization present the government with tough choices. Although pollution is a major public concern, the promise of development also ranks high as a social goal, said Ebel.

"I wonder what would happen if that development, for whatever the reason, doesn't come about," he said. "Do you have protests in the streets because people have been looking forward to a better life every year?"

Philip Andrews-Speed, a China energy expert at Scotland's University of Dundee, said the country's recently announced rural reform program to allow trading in land leases will spur urbanization and the problems that go with it.

"You can't blame China for going the urbanization route because that is what every other developed country has done," Andrews-Speed said. But he added that the IEA projections should serve as an environmental wake-up call.

"The key message is that if nothing changes, this is what is going to happen, therefore something has to change," Andrews-Speed said.