Counting Carbon
Uncertainty Surrounds China’s “Peak Carbon” Moment

It’s been an interesting couple of months for China’s green credibility on the international stage. In February the country’s National Bureau of Statistics reported coal consumption dropped a surprising 3.7 percent in 2015, a cut that would bring down emissions but also potentially lose 1.8 million jobs. A week later, a group of researchers from the London School of Economics reported that China may be heading for peak carbon emissions by 2025, if it isn’t there already. Then last week the Oslo-based Center for International Climate and Environmental Research (CICERO) poured cold water on China’s falling emissions, saying that “[h]eadlines about falling emissions may be misinterpreting the numbers.”

So which is it? Are China’s emissions retreating from an all-time peak, or are they merely plateauing? As the New York Times reports, there’s little scientific consensus:

[A] handful of climate researchers say carbon emissions from China may be falling, after climbing rapidly since 2001, when China joined the World Trade Organization. Two British researchers, Fergus Green and Nicholas Stern, made this case in a paper published last month by the journal Climate Policy. “It is quite possible that emissions will fall modestly from now on, implying that 2014 was the peak,” they wrote. […]

Yang Fuqiang, a senior climate and energy adviser at the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council, said carbon emissions from China may have peaked in 2014 at between 9.3 billion and 9.5 billion metric tons. (In the United States, emissions hit 6.1 billion metric tons in 2007 before falling, researchers for a Norwegian group said.) […]

But there is also a strong case for less optimism…Oil and natural gas use is also rising in China — from people driving cars, for example — and the growth of carbon emissions from that could exceed the drop in emissions from coal use. “I think the total of China’s carbon dioxide emissions will rise again in coming years,” said Jiang Kejun, a senior researcher at the Energy Research Institute of China’s main economic planning agency.

At the heart of all this uncertainty lies the dubious nature of China’s self-reported statistics. Extrapolating quantities of greenhouse gas emissions is already more of an art than a science, as there’s no effective way to empirically measure how much of these gases a country is putting out into the atmosphere. Instead, we’re left relying on painting the picture for ourselves based on known data about the drivers of these emissions. In China, that information is suspect—and so we’re left with fuzzy details.

But speaking in more general terms, we know Beijing is concerned about the toxic smog choking many of its megacities, and that as a result it’s looking to decrease its domestic coal consumption. We also know that the Chinese economy is struggling of late, and we suspect that the China bubble may be bursting. In addition, we know that China has plenty of incentives to transition away from a more energy intensive manufacturing economy to one predicated on services and the exchange of information. All of these broader trends ought to contribute to falling Chinese emissions in the future, and we may already be signs of these changes taking place.

If that’s true, it throws (yet another) wrench in the cogs of our best climate models, which have long identified China as one of the most important drivers of climate change this century. Once again we’re seeing suggestions that the world isn’t in nearly as much trouble as Malthusian greens would have you believe—perhaps the sky isn’t falling…

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