China's overstated carbon emissions highlight need for better energy data, analysts say
Originally published at the South China Morning Post on August 20, 2015.
New research revealing that China emitted less carbon in the past decade than previously estimated will help the country develop more concrete climate-change policies and highlights the need for more accurate energy data, experts say.
China's total carbon emissions in 2013 were 14 per cent less than the figures used by the UN's panel of experts tasked with providing the scientific framework for global climate talks, according to a study by the journal Nature.
From 2000 to 2013, China - the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitter - produced nearly three billion tonnes less carbon than previously estimated, according to the report, which was published on Wednesday.
The study comes as China prepares to negotiate a new climate-change plan at a UN conference in Paris in December. Critics say China - whose emissions account for 24 per cent of the global total - has set pledges that are not aggressive enough.
Premier Li Keqiang has pledged that carbon emissions will peak by 2030. The nation set a goal to reduce carbon emissions per unit of gross domestic product by 60 to 65 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030, and increase the share of non-fossil fuels in its energy mix by 20 per cent.
Dabo Guan, a co-author of the study and professor of climate change economics at the University of East Anglia, said the new research gave a more accurate baseline for policymakers to come up with measures to mitigate carbon emissions.
The research would enable the nation to take a leading role and encourage other major coal-consuming countries like India to develop more accurate emission measurements, he said.
"There's no peak level that's been announced yet, and one of the key reasons is that before our work was published, China did not have [data that was] sufficiently accurate," Guan said.
"Without a solid baseline, policy measures won't work well."
Through analysing coal samples from 4,243 state-owned Chinese mines, researchers found that the average quality of coal was lower than assumed, meaning it contained less carbon. But the study also found that the country's energy consumption grew at a faster annual rate from 2000 to 2010 than estimated.
Yang Fuqiang, senior adviser on climate change, energy and environment at the Natural Resources Defence Council's China Programme, said that while the study allowed policymakers to better assess their options, China would not use the results as leverage in the Paris negotiations.
The talks would be mainly based on pledges the country had already submitted to the UN, said Yang, who will take part in the negotiations.
"The first priority is how much [of the emissions] China can cut," he said.
The slowdown in economic growth - coupled with a shift away from energy-intensive sectors, a rise in alternative energy sources and lower coal consumption - made reducing carbon intensity by up to 65 per cent "not very difficult" to achieve, Yang said. Even a 70 per cent reduction was feasible, he said.
Greenpeace China climate analyst Li Shuo, who will represent his organisation in the Paris talks, echoed Yang's assessment, saying the study highlighted a larger problem with the quality of carbon emissions data.
"The major revisions proposed by this new paper are a sign ... of significant uncertainty in our understanding of the fundamental variables of China's emissions," Li said.
"Any commitment to cutting carbon emissions negotiated at the Paris climate summit must be underpinned by an equally strong commitment to improve [data] accuracy."
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: China's carbon count 'lower than expected'