New research showed that carbon emissions in China have been over-estimated by international bodies for more than a decade, while the country’s energy consumption has been underestimated, according to a study published by Nature journal on Thursday.

An international research team led by Harvard University, University of East Anglia (UEA), the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Tsinghua University found that from 2000-2013, China produced 2.9 gigatonnes less carbon than previous estimates of its cumulative emissions.

A factory in China. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The revised estimate of China’s emissions from fossil fuel combustion and cement production in 2013 is 2.49 gigatonnes of carbon, which is about 14% lower than what was reported by previous assessments.

Emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and cement production from 1950-2013 were re-evaluated using independently assessed activity data and new measurements of emission factors. According to Professor Dabo Guan of UEA, these new estimates were produced by taking into consideration fuel quality for the first time, a factor that is usually ignored by international data sources in establishing emission inventories.

Guan said that although China is the largest coal consumer in the world, it burns lower quality coal, which has a lower heat value and carbon content compared to coal used in US and Europe.

Estimates of Chinese emissions have previously been largely uncertain. Figures varied greatly – up to 40% in a given year – due to conflicting assessments of energy consumption and emission factors.  According to Professor Le Quere, director of the UAE Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, there were also a lot of discrepancies between national and provincial figures.

“The strong message here is that as we refine our estimates of carbon emissions we get closer to an accurate picture of what is going on and we can improve our climate projections and better inform policy on climate change,” Professor Le Quéré said.

Li Shuo, climate policy officer with Greenpeace, said that the study highlighted the problem of uncertainty with China’s emissions, and its implications.

“Since China’s climate commitments are based on this data, it’s crucial that these challenges are recognised and the country’s capacity to account for its emissions strengthened. This is a timely reminder that any commitment to cutting carbon emissions negotiated at the Paris climate summit must be underpinned by an equally strong commitment to improve accuracy and transparency in the way emissions are measured and accounted for,” he said.

China accounted for nearly three-quarters of growth in global carbon emissions from burning of fossil fuels and cement production between 2010-2012.

Karen is a journalist and writer covering politics and legal affairs in Hong Kong for HKFP. She has also written features on human rights, public space, regional legal developments, social and grassroots activism, and arts & culture. She is a BA and LLB graduate from the University of Hong Kong.