Growing China's economy while cutting planet-warming emissions is a huge challenge.
Try this statistic on for size: If China's economy continues to grow at its current pace, and the Asian giant doesn't cut its rate of energy use, by 2030 it could be emitting as much carbon into the atmosphere as the entire world does today.
And here's another: As you read this, China is bringing on line coal-fired power plants – major sources of greenhouse-gas emissions – at the mind-boggling rate of two per week.
Yet China's No. 1 mandate isn't environmental protection, it's economic growth. And that's defensible. A rising standard of living helps ensure that the world's most-populous country remains stable, a goal that benefits both the Chinese people and the rest of the world.
The question of how China can both cut emissions and grow its economy at the same time "poses one of the greatest challenges of this century," declares a recent analysis in the journal Science.
All the Prius-driving, thermostat-lowering, and light-bulb changing going on in the rest of the world won't count for much unless China can radically reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions. This week, China made clear at a discussion of climate change at the United Nations that it considers itself a "victim" of global warming rather than one of the "culprits" causing it – i.e., the world's rich nations.
While China promises to play a positive role in battling the problem, Ambassador Yu Qingtai said, it should not be expected to be bound by the same caps on emissions as a "developed country."