China burns much more coal than reported

Revised data means it released almost 1 billion more tonnes of carbon dioxide annually

BEIJING • China, the world's leading emitter of greenhouse gases from coal, has been burning up to 17 per cent more coal a year than previously disclosed, according to newly released data. The finding could complicate the already difficult efforts to limit global warming.

Even for a country of China's size, the scale of the correction is immense. The sharp upward revision in official figures means that China has released much more carbon dioxide - almost a billion more tonnes a year according to initial calculations - than previously estimated. The increase alone is greater than what the whole German economy emits annually from fossil fuels.

Officials from around the world will have to come to grips with the new figures when they gather in Paris this month to negotiate an international framework for curtailing greenhouse gas pollution. The data also poses a challenge for scientists trying to reduce China's smog.

The new figures add about 600 million tonnes to China's coal consumption in 2012 - an amount equivalent to more than 70 per cent of the total coal used annually by the United States.

The Chinese government has promised to halt the growth of its emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse pollutant from coal and other fossil fuels, by 2030. The new data suggests the task of meeting that deadline by reducing China's dependence on coal will be more daunting and urgent than expected, said Dr Yang Fuqiang, a former energy official in China who now advises the Natural Resources Defence Council.

"It turns out that it was an even bigger emitter than we imagined. This helps to explain why China's air quality is so poor, and that will make it easier to get national leaders to take this seriously," he said.

The new data, which appeared recently in an energy statistics yearbook published without fanfare by China's statistical agency, shows that coal consumption has been underestimated since 2000, and particularly in recent years. The revisions were based on a census of the economy in 2013 that exposed gaps in data collection, especially from small companies and factories.

Illustrating the scale of the revision, the new figures add about 600 million tonnes to China's coal consumption in 2012 - an amount equivalent to more than 70 per cent of the total coal used annually by the United States.

The new data indicated that much of the change came from heavy industry - including plants that produce coal chemicals and cement, as well as those using coking coal, which goes to make steel, said Ms Ayaka Jones, a China analyst at the US Energy Information Administration in Washington. The correction for coal use in electric power generation was much smaller.

Officials accepted the need to correct worsening distortions in the old data but have not commented publicly on the changes, according to Professor Lin Boqiang, director of the China Centre for Energy Economics Research at Xiamen University. Prof Lin said in a telephone interview that this was partly because the new figures made it more complicated to set and assess the country's clean energy goals.

"It's created a lot of bewilderment," he said.

"Our basic data will have to be adjusted, and the international agencies will also have to adjust their databases. This is troublesome because many forecasts and commitments were based on the previous data."

When President Xi Jinping proposed that China's emissions stop growing by 2030, he did not say what level they would reach by then. The new numbers may mean that the peak will be higher, but they also raise hopes that emissions will crest many years sooner, Dr Yang, the climate adviser, said.

"I think this implies that we're closer to a peak, because there's also been a fall-off in coal consumption in the past couple of years," he said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 05, 2015, with the headline 'China burns much more coal than reported'. Print Edition | Subscribe