It’s being reported how China, currently the world’s largest consumer of coal, has actually been dramatically underreporting how much of the fossil fuel it has been burning. Official data released by the government shows that since 2000, the country has been burning up to 17 percent more coal each year than previously declared, equivalent to (the CO2 that) what the entire German economy emits in a year from fossil fuels. The data, however, isn’t actually that new, it’s just that the Chinese government released the figures quietly.
According to Greenpeace East Asia senior climate policy advisor, Li Shuo, environmental experts and policy makers have known about these figures for a long time already. Talking to IFLScience in an email, he said that the data was released back in February this year, and if anything, this recent resurgence of the data goes more towards highlighting how slowly news travels from Chinese to English.
“That said, the data gap is huge and it is utterly important to have an accurate sense of China's coal consumption,” writes Li. “We think the latest media round highlights again that there is much to be done to beef up China's statistical capacity.” Even so, it’s important to note how this year saw China’s coal consumption drop for the first time this century, and this holds even when the data revisions are taken into account.
The data does show, however, that in 2012 China burnt through 600 million tonnes (661 million tons) of the little black rock more than was formerly reported, which clearly isn’t a good thing. It’s thought that from 2000 to 2010 the country accounted for almost half of global coal consumption, one of the primary reasons for the massive issues parts of the country currently faces with air pollution and smog.
But the recalculation is probably more to do with the fact that China is becoming better at measuring and reporting energy use, rather than data fiddling, as regulations on smaller plants and factories to report their emissions have been tightened. This increase in transparency and monitoring is clearly to be welcomed, especially in the run-up to the climate talks in Paris later this year, where 190 nations will gather to try and thrash out a binding plan to cut global greenhouse emissions. Paradoxically, it could also lead to China cutting emissions faster than before.
“There are two important sides of the China coal story these days,” Li concludes. “One, as reflected by the [media] yesterday and has been known by us for more than half a year, that the absolute coal consumption was more than previously reported; the other is the comparative year-on-year decline of coal – the first systematic downturn ever. Both stories are true. The former tells you the past, the latter shows the future.”