By 2015, China will emit nearly 50 percent more greenhouse gases than the United States, a top Chinese energy researcher said yesterday.

Ye Qi, a professor of environmental policy at Tsinghua University and director of the Climate Policy Initiative, both in Beijing, said China has made enormous strides over the past five years in both reducing energy intensity and developing renewable energy capacity.

But, he said, China's overall energy use has skyrocketed along with its growth, keeping renewable sources just a sliver of the country's overall share. Meanwhile, he said, China's emissions, which were 20 percent higher than the United States' in 2010, could be as high as 49 percent more by 2015.

"There is no question now China is the largest emitter, and the gap between Number 1 and Number 2 is enlarging," Qi said as part of a Brookings Institution panel discussion on China's low-carbon development.

The focus on China's clean energy work comes as Washington prepares for a visit later this month from Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to succeed President Hu Jintao.

Trade issues could 'sink' joint U.S.-China reduction efforts
Casey Delhotal, director for East Asia in the Department of Energy's Office of Policy and International Affairs, said she expected to see more announcements of joint efforts between the United States and China. But, she cautioned, trade issues over wind, solar and electric vehicle subsidies threaten to "sink" 34 years of Sino-American cooperation on energy.

"Politically what this does is put a bad light on our programs," which have been in place since 1978, Delhotal said. She noted that in the last spending bill, DOE had to beat back a rider that would have prevented the agency from working with China in any fashion.

Meanwhile, China is facing and in many cases accepting greater pressure to act on climate change. At the most recent U.N. climate change conference in Durban, South Africa, Chinese leaders accepted an agreement that could force them to take binding emissions targets by 2020.

Exactly how those would look though, remains murky. Currently, China is working on a pledge to curb emissions intensity -- the amount of carbon pumped into the atmosphere per unit of gross domestic product -- but has not indicated when it might cut absolute emissions. Qi noted that while China's intensity levels are indeed dropping, the overall emissions are skyrocketing.

In a review of China's 11th five-year plan ending in 2011, Qi's group found that technological developments and not structural changes have had the largest impact on the country's low-carbon performance. That, he said, means that over the coming five years, meeting national goals will be far more difficult. "The low-hanging fruit has been picked," he said.

He noted that the government is studying various scenarios for when it might peak emissions and begin to cut in absolute terms. The most ambitious look at beginning reductions in 2025, while others call for waiting until 2035.

"It's not just a technical number," he said. "It also depends on the ambition and the aspirations of people in the government."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500