Trump has called climate change a Chinese hoax. Beijing says it is anything but

Trump has called climate change a Chinese hoax. Beijing says it is anything but
A woman wearing a mask riding past smoking chimneys and cooling towers of a steel plant in Beijing. China, the world’s biggest polluter, has refused to accept international monitoring of its emissions and says it will provide data to outside observers. Photo: Reuters
Published: 4:00 AM, January 12, 2017

BEIJING — United States President-elect Donald Trump has called climate change a “hoax” created by China and said he would withdraw from the global Paris Agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

That threat has lent new urgency to a question that has loomed over the agreement since it was signed in 2015: Whether China will properly report and submit its carbon emissions data for verification.

Like some other nations, China, the world’s biggest polluter, has refused to accept international monitoring of its emissions and says it will provide data to outside observers.

In the past, conflicting data about the country’s energy use has raised questions about accuracy.

Under President Barack Obama, US officials worked to pressure China and other developing nations to provide more accurate data, viewing that as a difficult but critical part of establishing clear global benchmarks in climate change policy.

China has indicated that it wants to take on a leadership role to promote the Paris Agreement. But if Washington withdraws or lets up on its demands, the incentives for Beijing to do that through greater transparency will be greatly reduced.

The Paris Agreement rests on a foundation of transparency and good faith: Countries are supposed to report and submit for verification their carbon emissions data. Without accurate and timely reporting, there is no way to monitor progress and adjust policies.

International negotiators are expected to draw up standards that will apply to both developed and developing countries, unlike the bifurcated reporting requirements of older climate deals.

This means that China and India will be compelled to provide the same kinds of information as, say, France and Japan.

At a summit meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco, in November, officials discussed a plan to establish standards and mechanisms for reporting emissions.

Over the next two years, negotiators will engage in “the most technically complex and politically contentious issues”, said Mr Li Shuo, a Beijing-based climate policy analyst at Greenpeace East Asia.

China, he said, “still has a long way to improve its transparency system”.

A country’s greenhouse gas output is determined by extrapolating data about energy use rather than directly measuring it.

Accurate annual coal consumption statistics are critical for these calculations because industrial coal-burning is the biggest source of greenhouse gas pollution.

But China’s coal statistics are subject to official corrections and changes, and updates are released just once every five years, when the country conducts an economic census.

The last census revealed that China’s coal-derived energy use was 12 to 14 per cent higher than previous estimates for every year since 2005. Furthermore, there are persistent differences between coal consumption statistics reported on the provincial and national levels.

“Over time, it would be desirable if the reporting systems are improved,” said Mr Glen Peters, a scientist at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research-Oslo. “The fact that the census leads to 10 per cent revisions in such an important commodity is a little worrying.”

Another problem is that China has been reluctant to release its own calculations of emissions, so other nations rely on calculations made by foreign scientists.

The Chinese government has submitted emissions estimates to the United Nations only twice, for 1994 and 2005.

Most other developing nations have also submitted only two estimates, but some, including Brazil and Mexico, have submitted three or more.

There is “no good reason” that China is dragging its feet, said Mr Li, the Greenpeace analyst.

Under the Paris Agreement, countries will have to submit estimates every two years.

“International forces are quite attractive in terms of putting pressure on improving the transparency system,” Mr Li said.

China will compile emissions data from four data sources: National and provincial governments, businesses, and a planned cap-and-trade carbon market, said Mr Chai Qimin, a senior director at the National Centre for Climate Change Strategy and International Cooperation.

The different areas of reporting “can be used to check against one another”, he said. “At least major discrepancies won’t happen.”

Mr Chai and other climate researchers and policy advisers played down how large the carbon market would be by the end of this year.

They said Chinese officials had said only that the market would “launch”, not be fully operational.

China has been experimenting with seven regional pilot cap-and-trade markets. Mr Xie, the climate envoy, said that as of September, the cumulative total turnover of carbon dioxide in those pilot markets was 120 million tonnes, and the cumulative transaction amount had exceeded 3.2 billion yuan (S$664 million).

In any case, researchers say, other market forces are helping for now. They expect coal consumption in China to remain flat or drop, as has been the trend in the past two years.

That is mainly because of the slowing Chinese economy. China promised two years ago that its greenhouse gas emissions would peak in 2030 — a goal that experts now say will be met easily.

Some are even suggesting that emissions may have already begun to drop for the long term, although an emissions peak can be confirmed only years after it has happened.

Mr Peters’ group estimated that carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel consumption and cement production in China fell 0.5 per cent in 2015 from the year before. Those kinds of numbers have been a pleasant surprise for climate negotiators and researchers.

On Thursday, the Chinese National Energy Administration announced a plan for 2016 to 2020 in which the country would spend US$360 billion (S$517 billion) on renewable energy sources and create more than 13 million jobs in that sector.

A related coal plan predicted marginal growth in coal consumption, estimating that the amount consumed in 2020 would be 4.1 billion tonnes, a 3.5 per cent increase over 2015.

But Mr Li said the five-year energy plans constantly overestimated China’s energy needs. Greenpeace calculations show annual coal consumption dropped last year, he said, and “it is hard to see how a 100-million-tonne growth of coal would be possible”. THE NEW YORK TIMES