China will have to retool its engines of economic growth to help the world avoid increasingly dangerous levels of greenhouse gas emissions in coming decades, a leading expert on the economic impact of climate change said.
Nicholas Stern, formerly a British Treasury official and World Bank chief economist, told a meeting in Beijing on Friday that transformation would rest on rich countries leading the way by cutting their own emissions and helping poor nations, including China, now the world's biggest emitter.
With the right technological and funding support, China and other big emerging economies could manage the transition to low-emissions growth, said Stern, author of a 2006 report for the British government on the economics of climate change.
"China's so big that unless China does that, this is not going to work," said Stern, referring to efforts to curb greenhouse gases from human activity, especially carbon dioxide from burning coal, gas and oil.
"This is never going to work unless developing countries are involved," he said.
Stern, now a professor at the London School of Economics, said Beijing should develop domestic policies to encourage a shift to less emissions-intensive growth. That would mean less reliance on exports and more on domestic consumption, service industries and low-carbon technology, he later told reporters.
"I think that they're mutually supportive," Stern said of these three areas of potential growth. "I believe that China...will actually lead the way to a low-carbon economy."
China, with its rising emissions, will be crucial in efforts to create a successor to the current Kyoto Protocol, the global treaty on climate change that expires at the end of 2012.
But big differences divide rich and poor countries over the emissions goals and funding and technology support commitments that would form the basis of any new treaty.
Developed nations have pressed Beijing to set goals on slowing emissions growth in coming years, leading to early cuts in absolute volumes as part of the new pact that governments hope to agree in Copenhagen by the end of 2009.
The US Oak Ridge National Laboratory has estimated China emitted 1.8 billion tonnes of carbon from burning fossil fuels in 2007, compared with the United States' 1.6 billion tonnes.
Under current treaties, China and other developing countries need not shoulder the quantified limits on emissions that rich economies must take on.
Beijing has said that principle must not change and resisted specifying when its emissions may peak, pointing out its average emissions per person are much lower than the average in rich nations.
But Stern said he remained hopeful a basic agreement could be reached in Copenhagen, with signs from Washington, Tokyo and other capitals that governments want to curtail emissions.
"I think we've got a good chance of getting agreement on the overall framework," Stern said of Copenhagen. "I think China will want to work to find an equitable global deal."