Most polluted cities (List for 2007, compiled by the non-profit Blacksmith Institute, based in London and New York) Sumgayit, Azerbaijan Linfen, China Tianying, China Sukinda, India Vapi, India La Oroya, Peru Dzerzhinsk, Russia Norilsk, Russia Chernobyl, Ukraine Kabwe, Zambia
No gasoline-powered car assembled in North America would meet China's current fuel-efficiency standard.
Even vehicles produced under California's proposed, and much praised, efficiency law – being fought tooth and nail by the U.S. and Canadian governments and the auto industry – wouldn't come close to the Chinese mileage limits.
If that's a shock, take a deep breath. There's more.
The world's most populous country – and one of its most-polluted – is racing to cut all sorts of emissions, including the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. And any hope of getting the troubled Kyoto Protocol negotiations back on track comes in large part from China.
This is not the common wisdom about a place widely viewed as pillaging its environment in the name of economic growth and international status.
To be sure, China faces massive environmental problems: For evidence, look no further than photos of Beijing's impressive Olympic venues, their dazzling architecture obscured by thick smog. The national government steamrolled opposition and common sense to build the monumental Three Gorges dam on the Yangtze River, ensuring ecological and human disaster. China has overtaken the United States as Earth's biggest spewer of greenhouse gases. It's opening new coal-fired generating stations at the rate of about one a week.
Still, it is doing far more than Canada, the U.S. or just about any other place to clean up its act. It has begun to impose regulations and targets for car emissions, renewable fuels, carbon storage, forest renewal, energy efficiency and industrial pollution. It's investing heavily in new technologies, including "clean" coal and alternative power sources. In many ways it's putting us to shame.
Its successes have, so far, been overwhelmed by the sheer size of its economy, and its rapid growth. As well, many people here simply refuse to see anything positive in the authoritarian powerhouse.
When it comes to climate change, China has always worn a black hat – with good reason.
Under the Kyoto Protocol, it was treated as a developing country and, so, was excused from taking on greenhouse gas targets. It has argued, along with the rest of the world's "poor" nations, that since it wasn't responsible for climate change it should be allowed to grow rich in the same unsustainable way North America and Europe did. And it has insisted that wealthy Europe, North America and Japan must clean up their act before it should be expected to do anything.
That line is partly true. Much of China is abjectly poor, and its per capita greenhouse gas emissions are about one-seventh of Canada's.
On the other hand, it is, in total, growing very rich. It's now one of the world's leading exporters and holds much of the United States' massive debt. That makes putting it in the same woebegone column as Congo or Zimbabwe patently ridiculous.
China seems to have finally acknowledged that it is, indeed, a big industrial and financial player. At the recent United Nations conference on climate change, in Bali, it shifted from intransigent roadblock toward possible bridge.
The extent of the transformation became clearer this week at an Ottawa conference on the future of climate change action beyond 2012.
The event, sponsored by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, was governed by "Chatham House" rules. Under that system – named after the London research organization that invented it to promote open discussion – discussions can be reported, but no one can be quoted by name.
Experts there – Canadian and American researchers, including a representative from a high-level group that advises Beijing – said, quite simply, China has decided to build a low-carbon economy. A couple of years ago, it wasn't considered polite to even mention climate change: Now, it's embedded in the latest five-year plan, which calls for a 20 per cent improvement in energy efficiency by 2010.
Some critics argue that, despite the apparently centralized government, the rhetoric from Beijing is far more impressive than the action on the ground, since many local officials still promote economic growth, or their bank accounts, at the expense of the environment. And apart from the increasing number buying cars, the green movement doesn't yet touch the average person.
Still, while it's early days, and many of the plans are, for now, a dog's breakfast, China is doing amazing things, one conference participant said.
Not surprisingly, although China wants to be seen as a good global citizen, the main push is self-interest.
This summer's Olympics provided an immediate jolt. China doesn't want foul air to spoil its coming-out extravaganza.
On top of that, pollution is taking a terrible health toll: It's among the country's leading causes of death. Climate change threatens to eliminate glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau that are the major source of water for China and much of Asia. Freak storms have unleashed death and economic destruction.
The car efficiency standards were inspired by looming fuel shortages and the soaring price of oil, which China must import.
And like forward thinkers here, Chinese leaders are also convinced there's gold in green. They dominate world trade in conventional exports. Why not in clean technology, too? For a start, China will soon introduce low-cost solar panels that are expected to take over the global market.
China also appears ready to be helpful with the next round of talks on emission targets. Under the agreement reached at Bali, targets are to be negotiated by the end of next year and come into effect in 2012. But that deal was a weak compromise, cobbled together just so the marathon conference wouldn't be viewed as a failure. With 200 nations divided into bickering groups, and complex issues to sort out, prospects for meeting the deadline are dim.
The key impasse is that the United States, backed by Canada, insists China accept commitments before it will move. China has given signs it will act, but wants a signal from the United States before it will go as far as it can. That could come soon after George W. Bush leaves office, since all three of the remaining presidential contenders support action on climate change.
The other message, though, is that China won't thump its chest about any of this. It doesn't want to be seen as a leader: It prefers stealth.
We're in for a diplomatic dance that's well worth watching with an open mind.