Are China’s Carbon Emissions Understated?

Amid Beijing’s claims that foreign embassies’ data on air quality is ‘unlawful’ and ‘inaccurate’ and the implementation of new air pollution regulations, there have been disputes about the accuracy of China’s air quality reports. Reports have indicated that China’s carbon emissions could be 20% higher than previously thought, from the Sydney Morning Herald:

Scientists found that the annual emissions reported by China’s 30 provinces in 2010 added up to 1.4 billion tonnes a year more than the total reported by its National Bureau of Statistics.

The gap between the provinces’ data and the national figure is equivalent to the entire annual emissions from Japan – the world’s fourth-largest emitter. It is 5 per cent of total global emissions.

The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, found the gap was mainly due to differences in reported levels of coal consumption in coal washing and manufacturing.

According to Washington Post, the difference between the national and provincial statistics is equivalent to the amount of all carbon emissions from Japan last year:

According to national-level statistics, Chinese carbon emissions grew at a 7.5 percent annual pace between 1997 and 2010, largely from coal use. But according to provincial statistics, emissions grew at an 8.5 percent pace. That’s a puzzling discrepancy, and it’s not clear which figure is actually correct.

The researchers, Dabo Guan, Zhu Liu, Yong Geng, Sören Lindner and Klaus Hubacek, come up with two possible explanations for the gap. The first is that the data is simply messy, due to the fact that many smaller Chinese firms are burning coal without the national government knowing about it. That might be due to shoddy record keeping. Or it might be due to black-market activity — small inefficient coal mines and coal-washing mills that were shuttered by the government and then quietly reopened elsewhere.

So it’s a mystery. But it’s a critical mystery. As the researchers note, it’s more difficult for scientists to model future climate change if they can’t be sure of how much carbon the world’s largest emitter is actually belching out. Right now, the International Energy Agency thinks we’re on pace to warm the planet by a staggering 6°C by the end of the century. But that’s based on China’s national-level data. What if the provincial-level data is correct and China’s emissions are actually 20 percent higher? Suddenly the picture looks even hotter.

Due to this discrepancy, climate change could be occurring faster than what was previously thought as well. The Guardian adds:

China has already overtaken the US as the world’s top greenhouse gas polluter, producing about a quarter of mankind’s carbon pollution that scientists say is heating the planet and triggering more extreme weather.

But pinning down an accurate total for China’s carbon emissions has long been a challenge because of doubts about the quality of its official energy use data. It is used to compute how the planet’s climate will change, helping plan for more extremes of drought, flood and the impact on crops.

Scientists say the world is already racing towards a warming of 2 degrees Celsius or more in coming decades because of the rapid growth in emissions from burning fossil fuels and deforestation. Adding another billion tonnes into computer models would accelerate the pace of expected warming.

On the other side of this debate, Professor Wang Yi of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing claimed that the figures from the government were actually overstated. Reuters reports:

But Wang said in an interview that research being conducted by his institute pointed to the opposite conclusion.

That is because the methodology used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a U.N. panel of climate scientists, does not take sufficient account of the big differences in calorific content of China’s many grades of coal, Wang said.

“We have some preliminary calculations and current emissions may be 10-20 percent less than the result based on IPCC methodology,” he said.

Even if the findings are confirmed, Wang said they would not change the bigger picture: China pumps out more carbon than any other country, about 22 percent of the global total.

In another article from Reuters, Chinese and European airlines are also disputing claims about CO2 and possible impounding of planes:

 China will take swift counter-measures that could include impounding European aircraft if the EU punishes Chinese airlines for not complying with its scheme to curb carbon emissions, the China Air Transport Association said on Tuesday.

Chinese airlines, which have been told by Beijing not to comply with the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme, refused to meet a March 31 deadline for submitting carbon emissions data.

A new stand-off looms after EU Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard said the carriers would have until the end of this week to submit their data or face enforcement action.

“Chinese airlines are unanimous on this. We won’t provide the data,” Wei Zhenzhong, secretary general of the China Air Transport Association, said on the sidelines of an International Air Transport Association (IATA) meeting in Beijing.

“We would not like to see a situation of ‘you hold up my planes and I hold yours’,” Wei said.

Read more about the environmental crisis, via CDT.

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