China has burned as much as 17% more coal each year than previously reported, meaning its annual greenhouse gas emissions are close to 1 billion tonnes of CO2e higher than estimated, the New York Times reported.
The revised data, previously also reported by Reuters in September, was published recently in a statistical yearbook, but were first referred to in the new economic census, released in February.
In the census, China’s 2013 coal consumption had been adjusted upwards by 400-600 million tonnes, equal to the combined consumption of Germany, Poland, UK, the Czech Republic, Italy and France, according to environmental campaigners Greenpeace.
The picture is further complicated by an August study which found China’s emissions were lower because of the low carbon content of coal burned. If correct, this would outweigh the upward revision due to the census data. But its conclusions have been disputed.
WHAT IT COULD MEAN
Fresh media coverage of the data and its potentially huge global climate impact makes it more likely that China’s coal consumption will be discussed when the Paris UN climate conference opens later this month.
Because China’s domestic and international emission targets are intensity-based, a revision to coal consumption data is unlikely to impact its ability to meet those goals but may up pressure on Beijing to alter them because they will have less impact on absolute emissions.
This is also uncertain however, as changes to assessments of China’s emissions output may also impact scientists’ assumptions of the global emissions budget required to prevent runaway global warming.
Beijing submitted its INDC several months after the economic census came out, pledging to cut emissions intensity 60-65% below 2005 levels by 2030.
In a May analysis, Greenpeace’s Lauri Myllyvirta said that if China updates its domestic energy targets to include the revised data, its carbon emissions in 2020 could be up to 500 million tonnes of CO2e or 4.85% higher than if it used the original data.
Its CO2 emissions growth rate in the years to 2020 would need to be cut in half to 1.2% per year for China to meet its goals, he wrote.
Part of the coal data distortions stem from the 1990s, when coal plants that had been told by the government to shut down continued to operate in secrecy, while in some cases China has under estimated coal use in industry.
Some of the previous unreported coal use is from 2010-2012, when many provincial governments reported false data to Beijing.
“Coal consumption was still growing rapidly and many provinces and localities were failing to meet their energy intensity targets. Instead, they fudged the numbers to keep the central government happy,” Myllyvirta wrote.