Changhua Wu: What the study on China's "overestimated" carbon emissions means

Reading time: 4 minutes
21 August 2015

Changhua Wu, Greater China Director, The Climate Group, shares her insights on a new study which states China’s carbon emissions have been overestimated in recent years.

The conclusions that China’s emissions have been overestimated, published in a recent Nature article, have stirred quite a debate here in Beijing.

However, the study, funded by the Chinese government, needs further work in order to corroborate the findings.

The paper’s key conclusion is that for the period 2000 to 2013, a total of 10.6 billion tons of GHG emissions should be taken out of China’s emissions inventory, or about 15% of its total. To put the numbers in perspective, this is nearly 100 times the total emission reductions achieved in the last 20 year collectively by developed countries, or three years’ worth of EU emissions.

The discrepancy comes from the kind of coal China has been burning and its cement production, which is quite different from that in US and EU.

China tends to use lower quality, brown coal for most of its needs. Such coal burns less well, meaning that up to 40% less carbon is converted into CO2 in the combustion process.

However, it also means that more soot and other particulates are produced which are the key contributing factor in China’s severe local pollution.

Another important point is that the Chinese government doesn’t publish its own figures on carbon emissions. Instead, it only releases data on energy consumption and production at the provincial and national levels – data that are often unreliable, conflicting and revised. For example, the authors of this new study found China used 17% more coal than reported by China’s national government.

This is why transparency and accountability are key to a strong deal in Paris.

Common monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) rules are therefore an essential part of the global deal that will be drafted in Paris at the end of this year, and China has a primary role and responsibility in making these work effectively.

On a global scale, the study doesn’t change the total level of greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted. Scientists know that emissions have continued to rise because of the independent measurements they take of GHG levels in the atmosphere.

It also shouldn’t affect China’s climate pledges: they are based on a carbon ‘peak’ and carbon intensity – the latter based on 2005 levels, therefore not on absolute numbers.

And we must not forget that China keeps its position in the global leaderboard as the major polluter in the world.

I have no doubt that China will continue to stay on track towards delivering its commitment to peak its total emissions around 2030.

However, this study does slightly change China’s level of responsibility for global warming. With the new data, the country would account for about 26% of global CO2 emissions in 2013 – instead of the assumed 29%. Also, on a per capita basis, the revisions would mean China's CO2 emissions remained below those in the EU in 2013 – even if it is likely this threshold has been passed today.

None of this, however, changes the fact China has been the world’s largest emitter of GHGs since 2007, accounting for about a quarter of world total.

What is important though is establishing a correct baseline ahead of the Paris climate conference when all countries are expected to make their commitments to tackle climate change after 2020.  In this respect, countries like South Africa, India, Indonesia and others that bear similarity in fossil fuel burning to China, should also review their case too in order to get real picture of each country’s emissions.

China has taken on responsibility for making steadfast efforts to increase its energy productivity, aggressively develop renewable energy and alternative energy, and has put low carbon growth as a key element of its economic and industrial restructuring. How to measure the progress correctly is critical in order to continue to incentivize leadership and best practices, fairly and effectively.

The international community needs to bear in mind the complexity of China’s current situation, characterized by the co-existence of outdated technologies and new and advanced ones; the fast track phase out outdated technologies and facilities; and rapid urbanization.

This study has done its part to help global community better understand the real China both in its emissions and its efforts and achievements.

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