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Chinese coal consumption down but not carbon dioxide emissions

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Published 29.03.2016

While Chinese coal consumption is trending down, it is too early to conclude that Chinese carbon dioxide emissions have fallen in 2014 or 2015. An article published in Nature Climate Change sheds light on uncertainties and revisions in official Chinese energy statistics, and explains why headlines about falling emissions may be misinterpreting the numbers.

China is the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide emissions, with more than one-quarter of global emissions, most of that from coal. The recent slowdown in the Chinese economy and coal consumption has given analysts hope that China can rein in its ballooning emissions faster than previously planned.

CICERO’s researchers have estimated the uncertainty in the growth of coal consumption by building on periodic revisions of Chinese statistics.

It is enticing to be the first to jump on the latest Chinese statistics and report any good news. We find that preliminary energy statistics from China are unreliable, and the most easily available data is often insufficient for estimating emissions.

Jan Ivar Korsbakken, lead author of the article

Many analysts, from the International Energy Agency to Greenpeace, have reported decreased carbon dioxide emissions in China. Their estimates build mostly on preliminary statistics of coal consumption measured by weight. Yet these do not give an accurate picture of emission trends, CICERO’s analysis shows.

Preliminary statistics for 2014 showed a decrease in coal consumption of 2.9%, measured by weight. Yet later statistics show that the coal energy consumption went down by only 0.7%.

‘Carbon dioxide emissions depend mainly on the energy content of the coal. China is consuming better quality coal, meaning that emissions decrease less than the amount of coal burnt’, explains Robbie Andrew, co- author of the study.

Adding the latest data for oil and natural gas, we estimate that China’s carbon dioxide emissions in 2014 actually increased by approximately 0.5%.

Robbie Andrew, senior researcher

Also for 2015, the figures vary significantly. Preliminary statistics on coal consumption, released last month, show a decrease of 3.7% measured by weight. Yet coal energy consumption went down only by 1.5%.

‘If we include all fossil fuels, we find emissions have gone down only slightly in 2015, by 0.1%’, said Glen Peters - the third author of the article.

Given uncertainties in the preliminary statistics, it is not possible to conclude whether Chinese carbon dioxide emissions went up or down in 2015.

GLEN Peters, senior researcher

This still means a considerable slowdown compared to the typical growth rate for the past decade. The article concludes that future revisions of the statistics will almost certainly not change that.

’We may have a better picture of 2015 emissions when China publishes more complete statistics later this year. Yet the full picture may not emerge until after the next major revisions, in 2019 or 2020’, concluded Korsbakken.

The article “Uncertainties around reductions in China’s coal use and CO2 emissions” by Jan Ivar Korsbakken, Glen P. Peters and Robbie M. Andrew is published in Nature Climate Change, volume 6, April 2016.