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13 November 2015

David Fridley on Chinese Coal statistics

Almost simultaneously to the note with Jean Laherrère's graphs on Coal extraction, the New York Times published an article claiming China had been under-reporting their extraction and consumption figures. The opening words of this article were right to the point:
China, the world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases from coal, has been burning up to 17 percent more coal a year than the government previously disclosed, according to newly released data.
Although never questioning directly the 2013 peak, the article raised doubts on the declining trend setting in. More than anything else, the New York Times aims to hike the pressure on China in light of the coming world climate summit to be held in Paris (COP21).

Days ago I received a message from David Fridley that brought this issue under a completely different light. David is a scientist at the China Energy Group, working and living in China the past 25 years. He was kind enough to consent the publication of his views in this space.

As a data wonk and China expert, I was also annoyed by NYT’s attempt to make a mountain out of a mole hill. If Buckley understood Chinese data, he’d find a much different situation than the breathless one his headline suggested.

The other major data sources in the world---EIA, BP, IEA—do not have independent sources of coal production and consumption in China. Whatever they publish is ultimately sourced from the China’s National Bureau of Statistics, and annually, NBS releases three sets of data: in January, they release a Statistical Communique with what should be considered a “flash” estimate of total energy production and consumption in the previous year and of the growth rates for coal, oil, gas, and primary electricity. In the spring, they release the Statistical Abstract with more, but still higher-level, details of energy production and consumption. (This is the book that EIA used to publish their article; they got an early copy during the EIA’s Administrator’s visit to China earlier this year). Then in the fall they publish the Energy Statistical Yearbook with detailed energy balances for the country and provinces, and breakdowns by industrial subsectors. These data are for two years prior (the latest now being 2013). This is the “official” Chinese energy data set.

China mostly follows international practice (with some notable exceptions) in how they present their data. They divide their balances into Primary Energy, Transformation, Losses, and Final Consumption. By definition Primary Energy = Transformation + Losses + Final Consumption (the right side being equal to Total Consumption). If they don’t, the discrepancy is recorded as “Statistical Error”. Since 2009, the Statistical Error entry in the balances for coal has soared, from 55 Mt in 2009 to 274 Mt in 2012. That is, their energy balances accounted for more coal available for consumption than could be accounted for in the transformation and final consumption sectors. This was one motivation for “deep diving” during the 2013 national economic census to gather data on energy consumption at the lowest local levels (prior to 2009, energy consumption below the county level was estimated). The revisions released this year sharply reduced this discrepancy, and for 2013, the difference between Primary Supply and Total Consumption was just 6 Mt.

The headline “17% more” (2012) is greatly reduced if consumption had been analyzed using the primary supply side of the equation. On that basis, the revision for 2012 was 10%. But this figure refers just to raw coal volumes, not coal energy content. China’s standard energy conversion unit is “tonnes of coal equivalent” based on an energy content of 29.27 MJ/kg. In 2005, a tonne of Chinese raw coal contained, on average, 22.1 MJ/kg, but that had dropped to 19.5 MJ/kg in 2012. When measured in terms of standard energy units then, the revision amounted to just 5%. It’s the energy part that has the emissions consequences, and it’s much smaller than the NYT article suggests.
I get the impression the Peak Coal story in China is coming at the wrong moment for the COP21. Burning about half of the Coal extracted in the world during this decade, China is an easy target for wealthier nations. The West naturally seeks an "agreement" that resembles some sort of environmental commitment, but without really questioning the Infinite Growth economic framework.

Coal is touted as the evil to bring down, while the West increases its dependence on "green" Gas. Coal can certainly be more pollutant than Gas, but when it comes to climate fears, a CO2 molecule emitted from the combustion of Gas, warms up as much as one issued from burning Coal.

It might just happen, that through its Nuclear and Renewable energy programmes and with the limits it now faces on Coal, China is actually the most serious country about CO2 emissions reduction.

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