Exactly How Much Carbon Is China Emitting Per Year?

The difference between China's actual and reported CO2 emissions may be significant.

chinese man on bike in smog
Commuters drive to work in heavy Beijing smog. (Photo: Stinger Shanghai/Reuters)
The director of the Public Trust Project, Alison has written for Grist and Politics Daily, among others.

The extent of China’s energy consumption has been a question with a murky answer for many years. A nation of 1.3 billion people, China surpassed the United States as the world’s leading greenhouse gas polluter in 2007. But scientists and policymakers alike have questioned whether data on carbon emissions in China is reliable enough to tell the full story.   

A paper published yesterday in Nature Climate Change validates those concerns. China’s carbon emissions could be 20 percent higher than previous estimates, the study suggests, indicating that climate change may be occurring at an even more rapid and dangerous pace than previously thought.

Authors analyzed data collected by China’s National Bureau of Statistics, and found discrepancies in the two publicly available datasets on energy consumption.

“The paper identifies a 1.4 billion tonne emission gap (in 2010) between the two datasets. This implies greater uncertainties than ever in Chinese energy statistics,” Dabo Guan, lecturer at Leeds University and a lead author of the paper, told Reuters.

The implications of this finding for global climate change are tremendous—the implications for policy perhaps even more so. The study’s authors warn that reliable national statistics are imperative for “global negotiations about future emission targets.” 

Rather than addressing the inconsistencies in their data, the Chinese government earlier today argued that the climate crisis has been caused by developed nations, and that China has already taken appropriate steps to deal with climate change. 

Obtaining accurate information on emissions isn’t just a problem in China, experts say.

“Much of the world does not have in place the capabilities and procedures for accurately reporting emissions of greenhouse gases,” wrote Rick Piltz, the founder and director of Climate Science Watch, in an email to TakePart. “This is something that must be improved over time as one important component of developing climate policy and implementing international agreements.”

The U.S. is not exempt from these concerns, either. In fact, some politicians are taking steps to make it increasingly more difficult to collect sound information on climate change—even when that information might help their constituents adapt more effectively to extreme weather like heat waves, droughts, and storms.

The North Carolina legislature recently circulated a bill that would ban projections of sea level rise unless they were based on historic data rather than current climate indicators—in other words, the bill would have made it illegal for scientists to accurately predict how the warming of the planet would affect coastal communities in the state.

The North Carolina Senate Committee on Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources approved the bill, with some modifications, and the Senate is expected to take it up this week, according to the Charlotte Observer.

Late last year, Congress nixed a proposal by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to create a National Climate Service that would organize and disseminate relevant information on climate change, and assist in the development of climate preparedness strategies. Ignoring wide-ranging support from businesses, nonprofit leaders, and scientists, Congress killed the proposal in a round of budget cuts.

Despite political interference, one thing seems clear: the need for numbers isn’t going away. “States and local communities will need a wide range of accurate data in order to manage preparedness vis a vis climate change,” Piltz wrote, including potential impacts on water resources, agricultural production, fisheries, ecosystems and public lands, coastal zones, public health systems, and more. 

Information is currency in a warming world. How the United States—and China—respond may be the difference between “game over for the climate,” and a sustainable planet. 

What personal actions have you taken to reduce your own carbon emissions?

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