Not So Fast
Is the Fall In Chinese Emissions Being Exaggerated?

It seems reports of China’s emissions decline may have been greatly exaggerated, according to a new study conducted by a research group based in Norway. Reuters reports:

“Headlines about falling emissions may be misinterpreting the numbers,” the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research, Oslo, (CICERO) said in a statement of a report published in the journal Nature Climate Change. […]

CICERO pointed to uncertainties in China’s coal data, and frequent revisions. It said Beijing has reported that coal consumption, measured by weight, fell 3.7 percent last year as economic growth slowed. But China is also using higher quality coal, which releases more energy and carbon dioxide per ton when burnt. By that yardstick, China’s coal energy consumption fell by just 1.5 percent last year, it said.

Overall, CICERO estimated China’s carbon dioxide emissions from energy use, including oil and gas, dipped by just 0.1 percent in 2015 after a gain of 0.5 percent in 2014. “Given uncertainties in the statistics, it is not possible to conclude whether Chinese carbon dioxide emissions went up or down in 2015,” said Glen Peters, an author at CICERO. China’s climate envoy Xie Zhenhua said on March 7 that carbon emissions were still rising.

It’s not surprising that researchers are questioning the reliability of Chinese data—the country has a long history of providing dubious numbers. And the difference between this new CICERO estimation for China’s 2015 emissions—that they fell by 0.1 percent—is hugely different from the International Energy Agency’s headline-making estimate of a 1.5 percent contraction. For a country as large as China, a 1.4 percent difference in emissions is enormous.

Despite CICERO’s new research, the IEA is sticking to its estimates. We’re not data scientists, so we can’t speculate on which number is closer to reality, nor do we envy the task of those attempting to figure out just how much China is emitting. But it is worth noting that this sort of variance in expert opinions on such a major issue affects much more than China’s attempt to rebrand itself as something of a growing green powerhouse: if we can’t be certain how much the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter is actually emitting, how can we hope to keep it to the sorts of pledges last December’s Paris climate summit laid out? Lacking any real enforcement mechanism, that treaty relies entirely on “naming and shaming,” but if we can’t even monitor emissions accurately, there’s no chance of prodding—however tentatively—countries into compliance.

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