PARIS – China is now king of the world in energy consumption, surpassing the United States 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 United States 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 2.26 billion tons of oil, compared with 2.16 billion tons used by the United States, the IEA said.