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China Burned Way More Coal Than Officials Previously Said

The new data, released less than a month before the Paris climate summit, presents a more accurate picture of just how much coal the world's biggest polluter is burning each year.

by Liz Fields
Nov 4 2015, 6:10pm

Photo by Andy Wong/AP

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In the weeks before one of the world's biggest climate change get-togethers is set to kick off in Paris, the globe's biggest carbon emitter, China, has quietly released updated figures suggesting that it may have been underreporting its coal consumption by up to 600 million tons annually for several years.

The new data released by China's National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) reveals substantial discrepancies in the country's annual coal burning activities. In figures released in the 2014 China Statistical Yearbook, for instance, officials said the country had consumed 3.53 billion tons of coal in 2012. The most recent yearbook puts coal consumption in 2012 at 4.12 billion tons — an upswing of almost 17 percent.

The implications of the new estimates are that China — already dogged by severe pollution problems, including dangerously high smog levels in major metropolises — was also emitting far more carbon dioxide than previously thought — up to an estimated billion tons annually, experts told the New York Times, which initially reported on the figures.

"It turns out that it was an even bigger emitter than we imagined," Yang Fuqiang, an adviser to US environmental campaign group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, told the Times. This helps to explain why China's air quality is so poor."

To put the new numbers in perspective, China's 2012 miscalculation is the equivalent of 70 percent of the amount of coal consumed in the US annually. Translated to carbon emissions, the discrepancy could be more than the entire Germany economy emits from fossil fuels each year.

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AFP also compared China's old and new data on coal consumption and concluded that figures had been miscalculated as far back as 2000. The news agency noted that critics commonly cast doubt on official statistics in China, which they say are frequently subject to political manipulation.

While the NBS did not immediately comment on the reporting variation, an adviser to China's top planning body, the National Development and Reform Commission, said at a Beijing coal forum that previous data did not account for some provincial statistics, which had been left out of the official national data that was gathered.

"The new figures are more accurate than before," the adviser, Zhou Fengqi, said. "Now the national figures have progressed and more accurately reflect the situation."

The new data could have an impact on China's recent pledges to peak its carbon emissions by 2030. When China's president Xi Jinping announced the pledge in September, he did not specify the annual amount at which emissions would peak, Yang told the Times. That's because the new numbers, though higher, could actually mean China is "closer to a peak, because there's also been a falloff in coal consumption in the past couple of years," he said.

Yang also said the revelations may not affect negotiations at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris beginning on November 30 since China's commitment was "only about a peak rather than the total volume of CO2 emissions."

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But some experts say the new figures do not indicate that China will peak higher than already expected. The World Resources Institute (WRI) said Wednesday that the Chinese government previously made the information public in a routine announcement on statistics in February. WRI added that the data has already been taken into account in various studies published since the beginning of the year, including the UN's recent report on countries' Independ Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC), UN-jargon for how much a country plans to reign in its carbon pollution.

"Energy experts are very well familiar with the latest emissions information about China so this should not have any impact on the climate negotiations," said WRI's Developing Country Climate Action Manager, Ranping Song.

Song added that China's commitment to tackling climate change alongside the US remains "strong" and that "collaboration has and will continue to play the largest role in influencing the climate negotiations."

"China's INDC commitment and its intention to scale up its emission trading system demonstrate that it is serious about tackling climate challenges," he said. "Of course to address climate change China, along with all countries have to do more beyond their 2030 targets, including the United States. That is why it is important the Paris climate agreement continues to ramp up countries' climate actions."

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields