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China’s global climate pact in jeopardy, CO2 emissions overestimated

It was just last year when Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to cap its carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 in a historic global climate-change accord with the United States, but a recent study changed the whole climate picture for the nation. According to a study released Wednesday, Scientists have vastly overestimated China’s greenhouse gas emissions over the last decade or more, giving the nation a bad reputation it did not necessarily deserve. The study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature, shows the coal error amounted to 10 percent of global emissions in 2013. Scientists tested the types of coal actually being burned in China and found that they produced 40 percent less carbon than had been estimated. The new estimate has put the prospects for a global climate change pact in jeopardy, ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in December 2015.

The study carried out by researchers at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in East Anglia, UK looked closely at the actual carbon content found in over 4,000 coal mines in China and lab tested around 600 coal samples, and found that the country produced nearly 40 percent less carbon than the default values used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other international bodies. From 2000 to 2013, China produced nearly three billion tons less carbon than previously assumed – a figure equivalent to roughly a third of current global annual emissions. The estimate does not change China’s reputation as the world’s largest greenhouse gas polluter.

“China’s total emissions as a country are still well above the second big emitter, which is the United States,” said Corinne Le Quere, director of the research center.

The findings showed that China’s total carbon emissions were 14 percent less than the figures estimated by the Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research in 2013. The figures were also inconsistent with the last inventory China reported to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It doesn’t change the overall climate picture though, but with months ahead of UN talks, it may affect discussions of how much responsibility China bears for global warming. This suggests previous calculations did not sufficiently take into account the fact that the nation produces and uses a particular poor grade of the fossil fuel.

Lead researcher at Tsinghua University in Beijing, Dabo Guan said,” China burns much lower quality coal, which has a lower heat value and carbon content compared to the coal burned in the U.S. and Europe.”

“For most of the developed countries, coal has been comprehensively washed but in China the process is not so comprehensive,” lead author Dr Zhu Liu said. “Basically, the coal contains higher ash; more ash means there is less carbon. If we convert the same amount of coal, we get fewer carbon emissions. That’s why we get a lower level than previous estimations.”

China’s addiction for coal has surely dulled in the past few years. As economic growth has slowed, new sources of power have come up as the world’s biggest consumer of energy and raw materials seeks to maintain balance between improving its environment and restructuring away from an economy dominated by energy intensive industries. As part of China’s energy strategy to rely increasingly on oil, natural gas, nuclear and renewable energy, the government also pledged to reduce China’s coal dependency by stopping any further coal projects. This move came just after China’s bilateral agreement with the United States in late 2014 to peak greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. The global pact gained momentum after China submitted a 16-page plan to the United Nations in June detailing how it plans to shift its economy to reduce fossil fuel emissions.

In light of the recent findings, it is evident that the policy actions by the country will not be enough to stave off any plans for cutting carbon emissions well ahead of the December summit meeting in Paris. At the summit, 196 nations will gather under the U.N. Framework Convention for Climate Change to present a plan for capping the increase in global temperatures and reach to ambitious outcomes that will have a real impact on tackling climate change. So the question now is how China will answer for its actions that eventually will have a profound impact on the world where the picture is still unclear.