Why The News Of China’s Underreported Coal Consumption Won’t Derail A Climate Deal

CREDIT: AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan

A woman wears a mask as she walks under smog in Beijing, China, Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014.

On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that, for more than a decade, China has been burning more coal than previously disclosed. And not just a little more coal, but a lot more coal — 17 percent more coal annually than previous reports suggested, which translates to more carbon dioxide emissions than the whole German economy emits from fossil fuels.

On its face, this seems like big, bad news. China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases and the world’s largest consumer of coal. China is a crucial piece of any successful international climate agreement that could come out of the upcoming U.N. talks in Paris. And China is notorious for underreporting its emissions data.

“The news that China’s government is already backing away from its commitment, before the Paris talks even begin, should come as no surprise,” Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), a vocal opponent of an international climate deal, told the Washington Examiner. “What should surprise us is the fact that even in the face of all this, the Obama administration continues to plow ahead with a unilateral plan that won’t really affect the global climate but will threaten to ship American jobs overseas and increase home heating bills for middle-class families — all while China and others act solely in their own economic self interest.”

But a revision in China’s coal consumption statistics won’t threaten the success of climate talks in Paris. The underreporting isn’t even news to energy experts and climate negotiators — and the fact that China is revising its coal numbers can actually be seen as a step forward in its overall climate policy.

“We have known for some time that China was underreporting coal consumption,” Nicole Ghio, a campaign representative of the Sierra Club’s International Climate Program, told ThinkProgress. “The fact that the Chinese government is now revising the numbers to more accurately reflect the real consumption is a good thing.”

Every five years, the Chinese government does something known as a statistical revision, where it revisits all the statistics from the past five years and revises as needed. The figures used in the Times piece come from one such statistical revision, first made public in February of 2015. When the figures were released in February, they got some media attention, especially after being translated by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Greenpeace East Asia’s climate and energy policy officer Li Shuo explained. What the recent Times article captures is not new data, but similar revisions that were officially published last week in China’s statistical yearbook, the country’s most authoritative data book.

“This is not entirely news,” Li told ThinkProgress. “The information in relation to this particular issue has already been known for at least a year and a half.”

Most studies published since the beginning of the year already take these revised statistics into account — including the INDC Synthesis Report that recently came out of the United Nations. That means that, when it comes to climate negotiations in Paris, China’s underreporting of coal consumption shouldn’t have much of an impact at all.

“This has no impact at all to the current negotiations,” Li said. “We are actually getting very close to the landing zone, in terms of where we should be and where we need to be in Paris.”

Why did China’s coal figures need revising in the first place?

When a country consumes as much coal as China does — more than 4 billion tons in 2013, far more than any other country in the world — painting an accurate picture can be challenging.

“The sheer volume of coal consumed,” Li said, “is difficult to capture in a country as big as China.”

Another complicating factor, Li explained, is the quality of the coal burned. A ton of hard coal versus a ton of lignite, for instance, emits different levels of CO2, nitrogen oxide, and other gases. They also burn at different rates, making it difficult for direct comparisons between different coal plants and their relative consumption.

A third challenge for accurate reporting is that, historically, reports of China’s national consumption don’t line up with provincial reports about coal consumption — provincial totals are usually much higher than national totals. That’s because provinces have an incentive to over-report consumption as an indicator of economic growth.

“In general, it’s a pretty messy picture,” Li said. “China [is responsible for] more than half of global coal consumption, and coal consumption contributes to 80 percent of its CO2 emissions. If you don’t know how much coal you actually consume, you have a hard time figuring out how much carbon we have left in the budget.”

Coal use in China continues to decline — and these figures don’t change that fact

Over the past year, one of the biggest stories with regards to China’s coal consumption has been its relatively stunning decline. In 2014, for the first time in a decade, China’s coal consumption declined by about 2 percent. Over the first four months of 2015, coal use in China dropped 8 percent — more than the carbon dioxide emissions of the U.K. over the same time period.

“Knowing that China consumed more coal in the past also does not change the fact that coal consumption is falling now,” the Sierra Club’s Ghio said. “Moreover, the Chinese reduction targets are based against the old numbers, which means consumption will drop even more rapidly to make up the difference.”

Li described it as a tale of two statistics. One set shows China’s overall coal consumption is actually bigger than previously thought. The other shows China’s overall coal consumption is declining.

Both are facts, Li said, and neither contradict the other.

“We will see another decline this year,” he said. “It is probably declining on an even faster basis than last year.”

News of China’s underreporting could actually help strengthen a climate deal

The New York Times article — and subsequent media reports — suggest that these new statistics could complicate U.N. climate talks in Paris, talks that are largely expected to produce a new international agreement on climate action.

But experts like Li, Ghio, and the World Resource Institute’s Ranping Song aren’t convinced that China’s inflated numbers will derail climate talks.

“Energy experts are very well familiar with the latest emissions information about China so this should not have any impact on the climate negotiations,” Song said. “In fact, many experts are still confident that China will actually peak its emissions before China’s own target of 2030.”

In a way, news of China’s revised consumption totals could be seen as a positive step in the months before Paris. Transparency — the idea that all countries must be forthcoming about their emissions and progress towards climate mitigation — has long been a sticking point for international climate agreements. In Copenhagen, the requirement of transparency was one of the strongest disputes between the U.S. and China, with the Chinese government ultimately refusing to increase transparency with regards to their national data.

But seven years later, that sentiment, Li said, seems to be changing. In the past year, China has released two bilateral climate agreements, one with the United States and, most recently, one with France. In both documents, the need for a robust transparency system is stressed.

“I think the fact that the U.S. and China, and China and France, are delivering the same language in relation to transparency is notable,” Li said. “It highlights the importance of having a really robust and strong future climate regime that ensures you to compare apples with apples all the time.”