Can climate policy progress despite imperfect emissions data?

Tianjin Power Plant. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Shubert Ciencia

Could China’s carbon emissions really be 20% higher than previously reported? A new report by UK’s The Guardian notes that due to inaccurate reporting of greenhouse gas emissions from China, the pace of global warming could be accelerating more quickly than previously recognized.

The Guardian references a recent publication in the journal Nature by a team of scientists and economists from the UK, China, and the US. This report analyzed the data gap in China’s reported emissions. The Nature authors focus on the key challenge of identifying standard and reliable data from individual countries in order to move forward with any regional or global climate policies and trading schemes.

The current controversy surrounding China’s emissions data centers on the following: “. . . The NBS (National Bureau of Statistics) publishes annually both national and provincial energy statistics. We compiled the CO2 emission inventories for China and its 30 provinces for the period 1997–2010. However, CO2emissions calculated on the basis of the two publicly available official energy data sets differ by 1.4 gigatonnes for 2010 . . . Differences in reported coal consumption in coal washing and manufacturing are the main contributors to the discrepancy in official energy statistics.” (Guan, Liu, Yong, Lindner, and Hubacek. “The Gigatonne Gap In China’s Carbon Dioxide Inventories.Nature: Climate Change.  10 June 2012.)

The authors of the Nature study present their findings with a view toward improving the reliability and transparency of energy and emissions data from China. The Guardian points out that using inaccurate data in climate modeling schemes and international negotiations could lead to inaccurate scenarios and ineffective policy proposals. Climate modeling scenarios include a great deal of uncertainty as it is – introducing the factor of inaccurate data from many countries (not just China) simply adds to the uncertainty. Significantly, China’s own domestic carbon trading schemes could be jeopardized by inconsistent baseline data.

How can the problem of inconsistent and inaccurate data be tackled? It all starts with accurate local and provincial level evaluation, measurement, and verification (EM&V) – a task that the Alliance is working hard to support via training programs with local partners across China.