China didn’t emit as much CO2 as we think it did, Harvard study concludes

China – the world’s most populous country and the world’s top polluter, carrying a lot of responsibility for global CO2 emissions. China gets a lot of well deserved flak for its unsustainable ways, but according to a new study, at least some of the flak is undeserved. China’s emissions have been overestimated by 14 percent, according to a study published in Nature.

Image via IB Times.

The research shows that from 2000 to 2013 China produced 2.9 gigatonnes less carbon than previous estimates of its total emissions – 14% less than previously calculated. However, China’s energy consumption grew 10% faster than according to its national statistics. The researchers, led by Dabo Guan, of University of East Anglia’s (UAE) School of International Development used independent data to reevaluate China’s fossil fuel consumption and CO2 emission from 1950 to 2013. The main reason for this discrepancy, they say, is that China burns lower quality coal, which emits less CO2.

“While China is the largest coal consumer in the world, it burns much lower-quality coal, such as brown coal, which has a lower heat value and carbon content compared to the coal burned in the U.S. and Europe,” said Guan.

[Also Read: Documentary on China’s pollution takes the country by storm]

This is both good news and bad. It’s obviously good news if China emitted less than we previously believed, but it means that China’s recent pledge to peak its emissions by 2030 will be much harder to achieve. China’s energy needs grow more and more with each year, and that trend is not likely to curve out any time soon. Frank Jotzo, director of the Australian National University Centre for Climate Economics and Policy, believes that this is a key indication that we need to shift our energy consumption away from coal. This applies especially for China, but many other countries should do this as well.

“For global climate change mitigation to succeed, a shift from coal to other energy sources in China is essential.” he said. “China is making good progress towards that goal.”

Indeed, China has taken some significant steps towards reducing its contribution to climate change. Their commitment has been backed up by actions, and for the first time, their economic growth has been decoupled from CO2 emissions. But these are just the first steps in what seems to be a marathon. China’s pollution reached record levels in 2013, and only 8 Chinese cities meet air quality requirements.

It’s a long way to go, and China’s success or failure to transition to a greener economy will be pivotal to our planet’s evolution. Hopefully, they’ll get it right.

Journal Reference: Zhu Liu et al. Reduced Carbon Emission estimates from fossil fuel combustion and cement production in China. doi:10.1038/nature14777

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