We are losing ground in the struggle to control carbon emissions.

Despite surging investments in solar and wind, carbon-rich coal has been the energy superstar around the globe during the early years of the 21st century as demand soared in Asia.

Carbon dioxide emissions from coal and other fossil fuels already are changing the climate and turning oceans more acidic.

Without a major course correction, scientists warn that later in this century we will enter a perilous new era that could include sea levels high enough to flood low-lying coastal cities, widespread loss of coral reefs and big decreases in winter snowpacks that store water.

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In the Pacific Northwest, concerns over carbon dioxide are at the core of a fierce debate about proposals to build terminals to export American coal to Asia.

Yet those of us who live here already are helping stoke Asian carbon emissions. That’s because so much industry has been outsourced to China, where coal provides the energy to produce stainless steel for our refrigerators, the plastics in our toys and the computer chips in our iPhones.

Relying mainly on its own vast reserves, China consumes nearly as much coal as the rest of the world combined. It has pulled past the United States to emerge as the world’s biggest emitter of CO2.

China’s coal has helped fuel an extraordinary economic boom that in recent decades has pulled some 500 million people out of poverty.

Facing growing international pressure to reduce carbon emissions and an internal backlash against air pollution, China is rapidly developing alternative power generated from solar, wind, hydro, and nuclear energy.

At the same time, its coal use continues to grow, although more slowly than in years past.

We all have a stake in what happens next.

How far — and how fast — China moves away from coal will help determine how high carbon levels climb in the 21st century.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com