China Coal Problem Is A Much Bigger — And More Terrifying — Issue Than We Thought

Has China knowingly been lying about the amount of coal it burns or was it the result of a simple error? That’s just one aspect of the debate that has emerged after a bombshell report by the New York Times. According to the Times, the nation has been burning up to 17 percent more coal per year than initially reported. Since China is already the leading emitter of greenhouse gasses via burned coal, it’s understandable that this is a huge concern.

Although many top Chinese government officials have yet to comment on the adjustment — which comes weeks ahead of the United Nations climate change conference in Paris — a few have quietly confirmed that the new figures are accurate.

“Zhou Fengqi, the adviser, told AFP the updated figures ‘more accurately reflect the situation.'”

Yang Fuqiang, a former Chinese energy official who advises the United States’ Natural Resources Defense Council, told the New York Times, ‘This will have a big impact, because China has been burning so much more coal than we believed.’

“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.”

Some remain skeptical that China will do anything serious to address the matter. The reason for doubt is based on the exact cause for the adjustments. It’s noted that the majority of the coal being burned that’s newly recognized comes from “heavy industry”: plants that “produce coal chemicals and cement” and those that use “coking coal” for making steel. The New York Times wrote that the correction for coal used to generate electricity was actually much smaller.

It’s worrying that because much of the hidden coal production can be blamed on businesses, China may be slow to act. The government is slow to correct the powerful tobacco industry, despite alarming reports that the popularity of smoking is hacking away at the lifespan of the nation’s males. The smog problem in China is an issue literally in front of the country’s face, and it’s obvious that the excessive coal-burning is to blame.

If China purposely underreported the amount of coal it burns each year, actively enabling the nation’s coal industry to continue poisoning the nation, then this is a problem that will likely not be solved ahead of or during the Paris conference. Although some news sources, such as Business Insider, assert that China purposely misled the world about its coal use, it’s possible the government was misled by the coal industry, which led to some embarrassment at being themselves lied to.

The issue at this point isn’t merely whether or not China was dishonest about coal production and use. We now know what the numbers are and what it means. The problem is what a greater challenge this represents for ridding the Asian nation of its toxic smog problem. Air quality in portions of China and much of Asia remains an enormous problem, and it’s negatively affecting the health and safety of millions upon millions of people.

China did announce its intention to halt the growth of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. The good news is that coal dependency in the country is on a downward trend. However, the adjustment for how much coal has been burned (and greenhouse gasses have been emitted) suggests that China may not meet their deadline. Even more troubling is that if serious steps aren’t taken to curb the coal problem in China, there’s really no telling how much worse they’ll have helped to make the world’s global warming/climate change.

[Photo by China Photos/Getty Images]