Coal cakes for sale in a market in China.

Coal cakes for sale in a market in China.

Michael davis-burchat/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Why China's bigger new coal use numbers aren't a big deal

SHANGHAI, CHINA—A front page story in The New York Times (NYT) on 3 November proclaimed that Chinese officials had suddenly, though quietly, announced that the country was burning up to 17% more coal a year than was previously disclosed. The story also suggested that the higher estimate posed difficulties for the upcoming United Nations summit in Paris on greenhouse gas emissions. But several experts say the higher rate of coal consumption has been known for months and has already been factored into the negotiations.

"This is old news," says Ranping Song, an official with the Global Climate Program of the World Resources Institute (WRI) in Washington, D.C. Song says that last February, the National Bureau of Statistics of China released preliminary revised estimates of coal consumption for 2013 and 2014 along with indications that data for prior years might also be low. "Most studies published since the beginning of this year already take into account China’s latest data," Song says. "The WRI commentary is correct," says Josep Canadell, an earth system scientist at Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Canberra who is also executive director of the Global Carbon Project, which tracks greenhouse gas pollution.

The revised coal numbers have been incorporated into the recent intended nationally determined contributions synthesis report prepared by the secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that will underpin the greenhouse gas emissions summit starting at the end of this month. "I don’t think [the revised data] will affect the climate negotiations," says Sha Fu, an environmental economist at China's National Center for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation in Beijing who is a member of the Chinese delegation to the talks.

Fu notes that the statistics bureau released further details on the revisions in May before finalizing data on energy use since 2000 in the energy chapter of the China Energy Statistical Yearbook 2014 published in late August. The release of the yearbook apparently led to the NYT article. The journalist who wrote the article, Chris Buckley, did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Song and Fu agree that the revised data do not suggest China faces a bigger challenge achieving its stated goal of halting the growth of its carbon dioxide emissions by 2030. Song says coal consumption declined 2.9% in 2014 and the downward trend is accelerating this year. "Many experts are still confident that China will actually peak its emissions before [its] own target of 2030," he says.

If the data are not particularly new or worrisome, Canadell says there is one take home message from the NYT story that is on the mark: "We need to improve our [emission] monitoring and reporting systems," he says. China is putting a lot of money and effort into getting its numbers right. But few other developing countries have the necessary resources, and accurate observations will be necessary for the success of any greenhouse gas agreements. "As the saying goes,” Canadell says, “you cannot manage what you don't measure."

Correction, 6 November 2015, 6:49 a.m.: The name of the publication containing the updated coal numbers was misstated. It is the China Energy Statistical Yearbook 2014.