China’s emissions may be 14% lower than feared, research finds

Despite good news China overtook US to be biggest producer of greenhouse gases

It's rare to get good news coming out of China on the environmental front, but research by academics at Harvard shows Chinese carbon emissions between 2000 and 2013 were probably 14 per cent lower than previously feared.

China’s remarkable economic rise has been accompanied by a worsening of its environmental plight, as the country builds coal-fired power stations to provide the energy to keep the economy on track.

"Results suggest that Chinese CO2 emissions have been substantially overestimated in recent years," said a report in Nature magazine by a team led by Zhu Liu at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

“Evaluating progress towards national commitments to reduce CO2 emissions depends upon improving the accuracy of annual emissions estimates and reducing related uncertainties,” it said.

Environmental threat

China still produces an enormous amount of carbon emissions. It overtook the US in 2006 to become the biggest producer of greenhouse gases, which are blamed for raising temperatures and ocean levels. The country accounts for more than a quarter of the global total, almost double the levels in the US.

Coal accounts for about 80 per cent of carbon emissions in China. President Xi Jinping has pledged in a bilateral agreement with the US to reduce emissions by 2030.

"Without an accurate baseline, any target will become a number-crunching game," said Dabo Guan, chair of Climate Change Economics at the University of East Anglia, and one of the authors of the Nature study. "The main difference in our paper is for the first time we have taken fuel quality into consideration, which is missing from other estimates."

Climate talks

More than 190 nations will meet in Paris in December for a

United Nations

conference on climate change that is intended to broker a new agreement limiting future emissions and averting the worst effects of global warming.

The news will give China, as biggest polluter, more scope at the talks, as there will be closer scrutiny of how emissions are calculated when it comes to allotting the cuts between the nations. However, China needs drastic reforms to improve.

The report said researchers had previously used a globally averaged formula, but when they examined the types of coal being burned in China, they produced 40 per cent less carbon than thought.

The research was led by Harvard, the University of East Anglia, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Tsinghua University, in collaboration with 15 other international institutions. The study says the error amounted to 10 per cent of global emissions in 2013. Between 2000 and 2013, China produced 2.9 gigatons less carbon than previous estimates, meaning its emissions may have been 14 per cent lower.

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing