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Research Casts Doubt on China's Pollution Claims

Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 15, 2001; Page A16.

BEIJING -- New studies have cast doubt on reports that China is significantly reducing the "greenhouse gas" emissions that help make it one of the world's major polluters.

Research by a Japanese scientist, funded by the World Bank, raises questions about Chinese statistics that show a huge reduction in production of coal, a fuel whose consumption contributes heavily to pollution here. And at a recent conference in Beijing, a Chinese scientist reported that China will revise upward its estimates for coal consumption for 1999, wiping out half the previously reported reductions.

Other research points to a serious underreporting of China's consumption of oil, another major pollutant.

China is the second-largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world, after the United States. Until the initial Chinese studies were released showing a drop in coal production and oil consumption, it was widely expected that China would surpass the United States by 2020.

The projected rise in pollution was thrown into doubt when researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., reported in April that, since 1996, China's energy output had fallen 17 percent and its carbon dioxide emissions had fallen 14 percent, even though China's economy grew by 36 percent over the same period. Also in April, the European Union office in Beijing estimated China had increased energy efficiency by 50 percent and reduced coal use by 30 percent over the past five years.

The reports, which emerged soon after the Bush administration announced it was withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, drew wide notice. They bolstered Beijing's arguments that if a relatively poor country like China could achieve major reductions in its carbon dioxide emissions, then richer countries should be able to follow suit. But a report issued by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing this month called the statistical claims "greatly exaggerated," saying they fell "outside the realm of experience of any other country in modern times." The report concluded that China's greenhouse gas emissions "have dropped little, if at all."

Nobuhiro Horii, of the Institute of Developing Economies in Japan, looked at how Hunan province handled government orders to shut coal mines. He concluded that local officials told Beijing they had shut the mines, when in fact they kept them open. Interviews with officials in other parts of China led Horii to determine this to be a nationwide problem.

Horii added that it usually takes about a decade to increase energy efficiency. China's claims that it was making inroads into carbon dioxide production in two years, or even four, are not credible, he said. "This is just not possible," Horii added. "Yes, China is increasing energy efficiency, but they are doing it slowly, like everyone else."

The U.S. Embassy report noted problems with other statistics. The switch from coal to gas is not occurring in major cities as quickly as many in the government have said. Nor is the growth in hydropower replacing coal, it said. It also questioned Chinese statistics on petroleum consumption. Vehicle traffic in Chinese cities has been doubling about every five years. But official data show oil consumption rising just 11.4 percent from 1996 to 1999.

Zhou Dadi, director of the Energy Research Institute of the central government's State Development Planning Commission, said that doubts about China's energy statistics are reasonable. "But regardless," he added, "we are clearly decreasing our coal consumption." 2001 The Washington Post Company


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