If everyone lived like the average Chinese or Indian, you wouldn't be reading about global warming. On a per capita basis, China and India emit far less greenhouse gas than energy-efficient Japan, environmentally scrupulous Sweden--and especially the gas-guzzling U.S. (The average American is responsible for 20 times as much CO2 emission annually as the average Indian.) There's only one problem: 2.4 billion people live in China and India, a great many of whom aspire to an American-style energy-intensive life. And thanks to the breakneck growth of the two countries' economies, they just might get there--with potentially disastrous results for the world's climate.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts that the increase in greenhouse-gas emissions from 2000 to 2030 from China alone will nearly equal the increase from the entire industrialized world. India, though behind its Asian rival, could see greenhouse-gas emissions that rise 70% by 2025, according to the World Resources Institute. But the nearly double-digit growth rates that are responsible for those nightmare projections also present an environmental opportunity. "Anything you want to do about clean energy is easier to do from the outset," says David Moskowitz, an energy consultant who has advised Chinese officials. "Every time they add a power plant or factory, they can add one cleaner and better than before." If China and India can muster the will and resources to leapfrog the West's energy-heavy development path, dangerous climate change might be averted. "China and India have to demonstrate to other countries that it is possible to develop in a sustainable way," says Yang Fuqiang, vice president of the Energy Foundation in Beijing. "We can't fail."
The Kyoto accord on climate change did nothing to slow growth in China and India because as developing countries they are not required under the protocol to make cuts in carbon emissions--and that is not likely to change after the agreement expires in 2012. Both countries are desperate for energy to fuel the economic expansion that is pulling their citizens out of poverty, and despite bold investments in renewables, much of that energy will have to come from coal, the only traditional energy source they have in abundance. Barbara Finamore, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's China Clean Energy Program, estimates that China's total electricity demand will increase by 2,600 gigawatts by 2050, which is the equivalent of adding four 300-megawatt power plants every week for the next 45 years. India's energy consumption rose 208% from 1980 to 2001, even faster than China's, but nearly half the population still lacks regular access to electricity--a fact the government is working to change. "They'll do what they can, but overall emissions are likely to rise much higher than they are now," says Jonathan Sinton, China analyst for the IEA.