Fuzzy Numbers
China Burned a Lot More Coal Than We Thought

File this under bad brown news: China burned a lot more coal this century than it reported, according to new analysis from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). The FT reports:

Based on revised data released by Beijing this summer, the EIA has concluded that the world’s largest polluter and consumer of coal burnt up to 14 per cent more of the fossil fuel between 2000 and 2013 than previously reported. It said this meant China’s energy consumption and production were also much higher.

The EIA’s analysis squares with the supercharged economic growth of the decade before 2013 and much slower growth now but throws into confusion the calculations on which climate change negotiators rely to determine the level of emissions produced by each nation. Talks this December in Paris will attempt to rein in those emissions, in the hopes of preventing dangerous global warming.

China was already reported to be burning roughly half of the world’s coal, so a 14 percent spike in consumption between 2000 and 2013 has huge implications not only for the air quality of the country’s megacities, but also for our global carbon budget (coal is just about the dirtiest fossil fuel around). If the EIA has it right, China has been emitting a lot more greenhouse gases than previously thought, which has a host of implications for climate change models and the push for an international treaty predicated on reducing global emissions.

This is disheartening news, to say the least. It’s also emblematic of a bigger problem for climate scientists. Our best models keep failing to accurately predict surface warming patterns, mistakes so far attributed to ignorance of those many “unknown unknowns” of our planet’s climate. That the world’s largest coal producer was emitting much, much more from burning the dirty stuff represents an entirely new kind of error. Even some of our knowns, it turns out, were unknowns.

Uncertainty pervades climate science, once you start digging down into it. Generally, we understand that burning fossil fuels emits greenhouse gases, which in turn trap more solar radiation in our atmosphere and lead to rising surface temperatures, but beyond that we’re startlingly ignorant of our mesmerizingly complex climate. Greens will tell you climate science is “settled,” but that’s an outright lie. There remains so much we don’t know, and blustering past those blind spots does the enviromental movement no favors. Just the opposite, in fact—it sets them up for embarrassment when their bold, Malthusian predictions are eventually proved false. We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: overconfident greens are the number one cause of climate denial.

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