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Is China outdoing US in curbing carbon?

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That small start may be just the beginning for China. Last year it embarked on a dramatic plan to boost energy efficiency 20 percent nationwide by 2010, a move that could eliminate as much as 1.4 billion tons of carbon-dioxide emissions, according to a recent Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory analysis.

"They've really done a lot already to reduce emissions and improve energy efficiency," says Mark Levine, who heads the China Energy Group at the lab. He notes, however, that growth in coal-fired electric power between 2001 and 2005 has vastly increased Chinese emissions.

China is also currently lagging behind its ambitious 2010 efficiency goals, Dr. Levine says. Instead of a 4 percent energy-efficiency gain, the nation achieved only a 1.2 percent cut last year, the first year of the program. But even if China gets only halfway to its goal, the reductions in emissions growth would be larger than the EU's Kyoto goal of cutting 682 million tons annually by 2012, Helme says.

Such a large cut means China could end up by 2010 with "by far the most aggressive global warming pollution reduction policy of any country in the world," Douglas Ogden, director of the China Sustainable Energy Program at the Energy Foundation, an organization in San Francisco promoting renewable energy and efficiency in China and the US, wrote in an e-mail.

Much still hangs, however, on whether China can replicate the energy-efficient gains it made through 2000, Levine says. China once had 20,000 efficiency experts, since disbanded. Now the central government is demanding long-term efficiency gains from provinces, whose eyes are fixed more on short-term profit.

Still, if China's new efforts were recognized, it might deflate what Helme calls a pair of "myths" that are inhibiting Congress from acting on global warming.

One myth, he says, is that developing nations like China aren't taking meaningful action to curb emissions. Another is that China and other developing nations, like Brazil, will be pollution havens that suck jobs out of the US. (An exception to the rule so far may be India, he says.)

Several new bills, including one proposed by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D) of New Mexico, include an "off ramp" to allow the US to back out of its emissions-reduction program if China does not do its part.

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