The PJ Tatler

China Massively Undercounts the Amount of Coal It's Been Burning

This is an incredible story that raises all sorts of questions about the reliability of the Chinese government. For more than a decade, China has been undercounting the amount of coal it has been burning — and not just by trivial amounts either.

The increase in carbon emissions — just the increase — is more than the entire output of carbon by Germany in a year. They have been burning, on average, 17% more coal a year than they’ve reported since 2000.

No notice was given of the huge increase. The figures were released in a little-read report that appeared in a statistics yearbook.

China emits more carbon than any other country in the world. The New York Times is wringing its hands over this “complicating” the December climate conference in Paris, but China is already skating on its international responsibilities. They don’t have to start cutting their emissions until 2030.

When estimating emissions, scientists prefer to account for coal use by the amount of energy in it rather than by its raw mass, which includes impurities that end up as ash. Measured in energy terms, Dr. Korsbakken said, China consumed 10 percent to 15 percent more coal than the old data had showed from 2005 to 2013, the last year for which the new and old figures can be compared. The revisions for 2001 through 2004 were smaller.

Economists have grown increasingly skeptical about the economic data China publishes, and the revisions open a new episode in the debate over its energy use and greenhouse-gas emissions.

China burned or otherwise consumed 4.2 billion metric tons in 2013, according to the new data, and its emissions now far exceed those of any other country, including the United States, the second-largest emitter.

This is not the first time China has underestimated its coal consumption. In the late 1990s, small coal mines were ordered to close, but many of them simply stopped reporting their output to the government. For a time, this created an erroneous impression that China had succeeded in generating economic growth without increasing emissions.

More recently, some scientists concluded that China’s emissions were lower than widely believed because the coal it was using burned less efficiently than researchers had generally assumed. But Mr. Yang said that conclusion had been disputed.

The revised numbers do not alter scientists’ estimates of the total amount of carbon dioxide in the air. That is measured directly, not inferred from fuel consumption statistics the way countries’ emissions are usually estimated.

So if China’s emissions have been much greater than believed, researchers will want to understand where the extra carbon dioxide output ended up — for example, how it might have been absorbed in natural “sinks” like forests or oceans, said Josep G. Canadell, executive director of the Global Carbon Project, which studies the sources and flows of greenhouse-gas pollution.

“If the emissions are partially wrong,” Mr. Canadell said, “we’ll be wrong in attributing carbon sources and sinks.”

The safest route for the international community when dealing with any statistics coming out of China is to assume they are cooked. Has there ever been a communist country that did otherwise? I usually hate using generalities, but really, the way the old Soviet bloc countries used to lie about everything from grain harvests to cars on the road should make anything coming out of China suspect.

With this new information, it is absolutely clear that imposing the kind of draconian cuts in carbon emissions on the United States planned for by the international community will not lower emissions worldwide by one single molecule. The increase in coal burning by China — again, just the increase — amounts to 70% of the carbon emissions by the U.S. Until China is subject to the same rules on carbon that the rest of the world is bound by, the U.S. Senate should reject any and all climate treaties.