- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 20, 2010

PARIS (AP) - China is now king of the world in energy consumption, surpassing the U.S. years ahead of forecasts in a milestone that left the Asian giant immediately rejecting its new crown.

Sensitive to its status as the world’s biggest polluter, China has long pointed fingers at developed nations in climate change talks and resists any label that could increase international pressure for it to take a larger role in curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

When the Paris-based International Energy Agency released its data on Tuesday, China branded it “unreliable.”

The United States still consumes more energy and oil per capita than China. But China’s faster-than-expected shift has global consequences for markets and the environment, reflecting its transformation from a nation of subsistence farmers to one of workers increasingly trading their popular bicycles for cars and buying air conditioners and other energy-hungry home electronics.

China was not expected to overtake the U.S. in energy consumption until at least 2015, the U.S. Energy Information Administration forecast in April.

The consumption level, reached despite the global economic downturn, left China in an awkward spot: It is eager to be seen as an economic juggernaut and a major player on the international stage, but also insists it’s a developing nation that deserves to industrialize.

Some environmentalists are cautiously optimistic about what China’s new status could mean for the planet, pointing out that it has spearheaded research and development into renewable energy. The IEA’s chief economist, Fatih Birol, said China is the world’s leader in wind and solar power.

China’s total 2009 consumption, including energy sources ranging from oil and coal to wind and solar power, was equal to 2.265 billion tons of oil, compared with 2.169 billion tons used by the U.S., the IEA said.

China’s energy consumption has more than doubled in less than a decade, from 1.107 billion tons in 2000 _ driven by its burgeoning population and economic growth that hit 11.9 percent in the first quarter of 2010. Per capita, the U.S. still consumes five times more energy than China, Birol said.

The surge in energy consumption has turned China into the biggest source of climate-changing greenhouse gases. The government has pledged to curb the growth in its emissions, but has refused to adopt binding curbs. It has maintained that pollution is an unavoidable consequence of industrialization.

Chinese officials said the country’s energy consumption last year was equal to 2.132 billion tons of oil _ or roughly 5 percent less than the IEA figure, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

IEA’s data on China’s energy use is unreliable,” said official Zhou Xian, adding that the agency did not understand China’s efforts to cut energy use and emissions, specifically its new-energy development.

Birol told the AP that the IEA used the same sources and methodology it always has in compiling the 2009 statistics, which he said were in line with the trend for the past decade.

“The trend is undeniable that the Chinese energy consumption is growing very strongly” while use in the U.S., Europe and Japan was stagnating, he said.

Birol emphasized that China’s appetite for energy is consistent with the rise in its 1.3 billion-strong population and the growth of its manufacturing-based economy, which churns out half the world’s supply of steel and is also a top producer of aluminum _ another fuel-hungry industry.

China, however, is trying to cut its rising reliance on imported oil and gas, which it considers a national security risk, by investing heavily in hydroelectric dams, wind turbines and nuclear power plants. Still, coal, oil and natural gas are expected to account for most of China’s energy supplies for decades to come.

According to IEA statistics, more than half of China’s total energy in 2009 came from coal, a heavy polluter that accounts for less than a quarter of U.S. consumption. China’s coal reserves are among the world’s largest but much of that is high-sulfur “brown coal” that produces sulfur dioxide, a component in acid rain, when burned.

Oil _ the No. 1 energy source in the U.S., accounting for nearly half the total _ made up less than a fifth of the Chinese energy total, the IEA said. But that could change as more Chinese trade their bicycles _ historically the country’s dominant form of transportation _ for cars.

Last year, China passed the U.S. as the biggest auto market by number of vehicles sold and supplanted Germany as the biggest exporter. Passenger vehicle sales in China jumped from 326,000 in 1995 to 8.7 million in 2009, according to J.D. Power and Associates. That number is expected to soar to 13.5 million vehicles in 2015.

China is going across the world on the hunt for oil. State-owned Chinese energy companies have forged multibillion-dollar deals in Central Asia, Africa and Latin America to secure access to oil and gas supplies. Chinese companies are major players in the postwar reconstruction of Iraq’s oil industry.

As it pursues energy sources, the communist government is also in the midst of a five-year campaign to cut the amount of energy consumed for each unit of economic output by 20 percent from 2005 levels. The government said this month it has reached the 16 percent mark after shutting down outmoded power plants, steel mills and other facilities.

It is China’s green efforts, such as nationwide renewable energy targets, that has some environmentalists hopeful.

“We have substantive hopes in China, to be honest, that China will take the lead … to make the low-carbon economy, the high energy efficiency economy a reality in the coming years,” said Stephan Singer, the head of energy policy for the WWF environmental group.

“That’s not the case in the U.S., unfortunately,” he said. “We would need to see similar or even stronger targets there” in the U.S.

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Associated Press writer Joe McDonald in Beijing and Chris Kahn in New York contributed to this report.