We recently covered a report on the estimated death toll stemming from Volkswagen's long-running deception over the amount of pollutants its diesel vehicles produce. The controversy over the company's decision to try to cheat emissions testing has done irreparable damage to the iconic automaker – but to put things in perspective, it's got nothing on this.
According to an explosive report in The New York Times, China has been less than forthright on its own greenhouse gas emissions, and the margin of error is staggering. It's estimated that China has been burning up to 17 percent more coal per year than officials have admitted to, and given the country's massive size, the discrepancy is much more than a numerical oversight – it amounts to a huge pollution problem in its own right.
"This will have a big impact, because China has been burning so much more coal than we believed," Yang Fuqiang, an advisor to the Natural Resources Defence Council, told Chris Buckley at The New York Times. "It turns out that it was an even bigger emitter than we imagined. This helps to explain why China's air quality is so poor, and that will make it easier to get national leaders to take this seriously."
On the eve of make-or-break UN climate talks in Paris, the scale of China's annual emissions discrepancy – which alone is said to amount to more greenhouse gas emissions than the whole of Germany produces in a year – may make it easier for national leaders to digest the seriousness of emissions problems, but it will also make solving the overall problem of hitting emissions targets significantly harder (especially since it highlights the potential for wavering, revisable bookkeeping).
What is perhaps most remarkable is the manner in which the new data on China's actual pollution data has come to light:
The new data, which appeared recently in an energy statistics yearbook published without fanfare by China's statistical agency, show that coal consumption has been underestimated since 2000, and particularly in recent years … Illustrating the scale of the revision, the new figures add about 600 million tons [544 million tonnes] to China's coal consumption in 2012 — an amount equivalent to more than 70 percent of the total coal used annually by the United States.
Chinese scientists themselves are coming to grips with the ramifications of the new figures being released.
"It's created a lot of bewilderment," said Lin Boqiang, director of the China Centre for Energy Economics Research at Xiamen University. "Our basic data will have to be adjusted, and the international agencies will also have to adjust their databases. This is troublesome because many forecasts and commitments were based on the previous data."