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China's carbon dioxide emissions are growing much faster than expected. They're on pace to double during this decade. Forecasts of global warming don't take this growth into account. And as NPR's Richard Harris reports, that means scientists may be underestimating how fast the planet will heat up.
RICHARD HARRIS: When scientists last tried to project China's contribution to global warming, it was the late 1990s. Asia was in a recession and China's emissions weren't growing all that fast.
Maximilian Auffhammer of the University of California at Berkeley says, things have changed radically since then.
Professor MAXIMILIAN AUFFHAMMER (Agriculture and Research Economics, University of California, Berkeley): What we've observed since 2000 is that growth in CO2 emissions has been really off the charts - is probably the right word to say it.
HARRIS: For example, in 2004, emissions from China grew by 14 percent. That's so fast it's as though the world suddenly had another Germany or England appear from out of nowhere - smokestacks and tailpipes belching full-bore. Auffhammer and a colleague have used detailed information from within China to get an idea about what emissions will be like through the end of the decade.
Prof. AUFFHAMMER: The average of all these scenarios predicts continued growth in emissions of about 10 to 11 percent a year, which is roughly what we've observed over the last four years of our sample.
HARRIS: So it's doubling every decade?
Prof. AUFFHAMMER: Yeah. It's a very large number.
HARRIS: His forecast is being published in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management. By this reckoning, China overtook the United States as the leading emitter of carbon dioxide about a year ago. And its emissions are now increasing about 10 times faster than ours. That also means that carbon dioxide is building up in the atmosphere a lot faster than the United Nations science panel, the IPCC, figured in its big report last year.
Prof. AUFFHAMMER: We have to realize that these scenarios rely on data that are something like 10 years or 12 years old.
Dr. GREGG MARLAND (Oak Ridge National Laboratory): The analyses that were done, say, five or six years ago - no one could have anticipated the growth rates and energy use and CO2 emissions from China.
HARRIS: Gregg Marland works at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which compiled emissions figures from around the world. He says economists are now starting to update their forecasts, knowing that more rapid increases in emissions mean more rapid global warming. But Marland says it's a mistake to look at China in isolation.
Dr. MARLAND: Basically, a significant fraction of emissions from China are to produce goods that will be consumed in the United States. So it's wrong, I think, to point fingers at individuals or individual countries. We have to recognize that we're all in this together.
HARRIS: And China isn't just ignoring the issue. The country's economy is growing rapidly as it struggles to bring a large percentage of its population out of poverty.
Debbie Seligsohn, who works for the World Resources Institute in Beijing, says in the past few years, China has instituted policies to slow emissions growth. So China might end the decade better than scientists are currently forecasting.
Ms. DEBBIE SELIGSOHN (Beijing Representative, World Resources Institute): What happens is a complex mix of, sort of, business behavior, policy behavior, financial behavior.
HARRIS: But Max Auffhammer from Berkeley says, even if China does slow its emissions, the recent building boom in coal-fired power plants will have repercussions for decades to come.
Prof. AUFFHAMMER: If I build a coal-fired power plant today, that may be an operation for somewhere between 40 and 80 years. Any policy now is not going to tear down existing, costly, capital equipment in China. But we should really worry about what the next power plant they put in next week and the week after and the week after is going to be.
HARRIS: Auffhammer says he's an optimist, so he doesn't see this as a hopeless task. But he does say everyone is going to have to step up.
Richard Harris, NPR News.