Coming out of a long winter and into the pre-summer months (I daren’t call it “Spring,”), the season offers constant reminders to those of us living on the North China Plain* that China is far from solving its most serious air pollution problems. There are those, however, who live far outside of the Ring Roads who believe that things are a lot better and continue to improve.
Last year, ThinkProgress published an article under the breathless title “It Only Took Four Months for China to Achieve a Jaw-dropping Reduction in Carbon Emissions.” The article detailed a recent study by Greenpeace which noted that China reduced its coal use by 8% in the first four months of 2015 over 2014, resulting in a 5% drop in CO2 emissions. A Greenpeace analyst suggested that this shows that industrial output and thermal generation are decreasing, while use of renewables like hydro, wind, and solar are growing.
There are prima facie reasons to question Greenpeace’s excitement.
- Any reduction in coal use comes off of a very high base. China burned over 4.2 billion metric tons of coal last year, enough for two tons of coal for every living man, woman, and child in China, PLUS enough for three tons each for every man, woman, and child in the United States. While any reduction in the overall number is a good thing, China has a very long way to go.
Greenpeace is using government data to support its narrative. Leave aside any general reservations about the Chinese government as a source of data: in this case alone, the government has an abiding interest in telling its people a positive story, and thus in massaging or falsifying the data. Greenpeace’s defense of the government statistics – that that the government gains nothing by revealing a drop in industrial output – is at worst inadequate and at best debatable, especially as the other side of those figures is the shift to the service sector. Further, I’d argue that the government is actually under quite heavy pressure to be seen to be doing something about pollution, and that it has much to gain by gaming the figures on coal use. When the source of your data has both motive and opportunity to play fast and loose with the truth, it behooves one to seek less intrinsically biased sources. †
Similarly, there is no transparency as to methodology in collecting and analyzing these statistics, so we have no way of knowing if this came from a change in the way use is measured. Changing the way the game is scored is not an uncommon hammer in the Chinese statistics toolkit.
There is no way to confirm or gainsay these statistics because there is no credible, disinterested third party with access to the information on which these statistics are based, or that can provide data from other sources against which to balance the conclusions.
Even if we take these statistics as correct, there is little clarity as to what forces are driving the decline in coal use, so we are uncertain what caused them, and whether that cause is a one-off occurrence, a short-term phenomenon, or the harbinger of a genuine trend. If we do not look at wide range of factors, we cannot tell whether this was caused by uncommonly warm weather, a fall in the price of other energy sources, or a temporary decline in the economy caused by the shift from a manufacturing-based economy to a services-based one.
If this is not sufficiently convincing that China’s coal use statistics may be unreliable, at about the same time the Greenpeace report, New York Times correspondent Chris Buckley published a damning report of revised Chinese government figures that raised estimates of Chinese coal use every year since 2000 by as much as 17%. The culprit: “gaps in data collection, especially from small companies and factories.”
Greenpeace did not have to rely on government data. Researchers who dug deeper into the economy to come up with estimates, like Akaya Jones at the United States Energy Information Administration in Washington, came up with estimates that were apparently much more reliable than the government’s original figures, and far more so than Greenpeace’s.
We often criticize the Chinese government for getting statistics wrong. Playing fast and loose with critical measurements is wrong, but we expect no less from a political system for whom the truth is whatever serves the nation’s rulers. Greenpeace, however, does not get a pas.
Perhaps the organization just wanted to turn out a report on China, was pressed for time, and threw this together. I can only hope this is the case, because there is another, less flattering explanation: that Greenpeace did this in order to curry favor with the Chinese government, to show that it could go along to get along. If this is the case, it would not only be inexcusable, it would also represent a betrayal of the organizations mission, a betrayal of its stakeholders, and an abdication from its role as an environmental watchdog.
*- Or even those of us who USED to live there, return frequently, and have family there.
† Greenpeace itself has no lack of detractors who question the organization’s data on other issues. Whether those criticisms are valid or not is moot: by using a questionable source of data in a high-profile research paper without even flagging the potential problems, Greenpeace opens its methodologies and conclusions on a range of issues to re-examination.