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Last Updated: Monday, 7 May 2007, 16:14 GMT 17:14 UK
China's mixed messages on climate
By Daniel Griffiths
BBC News, Beijing

A Chinese man on a bicycle overshadowed by electricity pylons
About 70% of electricity comes from coal-fired power stations
In China, big is beautiful. It is the most populous nation on earth, has the world's highest mountain, and of course the longest wall.

But there is one record that the country's leaders would rather not have.

China is now the world's second largest producer of greenhouse gases after the US. And it is on course to soon become number one.

The main reason for that is the country's dependence on coal.

About 70% of the electricity that drives China's rapidly growing economy comes from coal-fired power stations.

On top of that, there are the emissions from the growing number of cars on the country's roads and the nation's booming factories and other heavy industry.

So if the international community wants to do something about climate change, it needs China on board.

Mixed messages

But what is China doing about climate change? The country's politicians are certainly talking the talk.

A murky layer of pollutants hovers over Beijing at sunrise
China is the world's second largest producer of greenhouse gases
Earlier this year Premier Wen Jiabao said China needed to do much more on the environment.

He promised to shut down polluting factories and implement tougher regulations.

China wants to generate more energy from nuclear power - with plans to build 30 new plants in the next 15 years.

And the country's policymakers say they want to get more electricity from renewable sources, like wind and solar power.

Yet just last month China said that it was delaying a national action plan on climate change.

That was a major setback for many in the international community who were hoping the plan would outline China's long-term response to global warming.

More worrying, perhaps, no explanation was offered for the move. Nor did the authorities announce any new date for publication.

In March officials pulled back from introducing a fuel tax that could have reduced greenhouse gas emissions, claiming it might dent the country's economic growth.

Tough consequences

China has signed up to the Kyoto Protocol, but refuses to accept mandatory cuts in emissions arguing it will have an impact on its economic development.

And there is the rub - for decades Chinese politicians have always put the economy ahead of the environment.

Pollution flows into China's Yangtze river
Climate change also threatens China's rivers
They argue that one day Chinese people should enjoy the same living standards as those in Europe or the US.

They claim that tackling global warming might slow economic growth. And they worry that a slowdown could lead to massive unemployment and social unrest.

Yet experts warn that climate change would hit China hard.

Rapidly melting glaciers in Tibet would lead to dangerously low water levels in some of its most famous rivers; the Yellow River and the Yangtze.

Rising sea levels would have a massive impact on the country's coastal regions which are home to the nation's most prosperous cities and provinces.

More than 400 million people in China are already living with the problem of desertification, partly brought on by climate change.

Higher temperatures would also affect agriculture and food production.

Yet, the reality is that global warming is not a major concern for most people. They worry more about jobs and money, family and lifestyle than the environment.

Pressure groups are still in their infancy, and have to be registered with the authorities, so they are not in a position to make a big difference.

China's leaders are caught between economic development on the one hand and environmental protection on the other.

Their attitude towards climate change has a global impact. And if they do not take action soon, it is not just China but the whole world that could pay the price.

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