China Agrees Energy Data Deal

China says it will cooperate with the International Energy Agency to improve data.
By Michael Lelyveld
2009-11-03
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BOSTON--China has agreed on new efforts to improve its energy data as climate negotiators work toward a treaty that depends on accuracy, experts say.

On Oct. 14, the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) released a joint statement with China's National Energy Administration (NEA), pledging cooperation on energy and environmental challenges.

Among two dozen provisions, the agencies said they would establish "principles for improving data transparency" and continue to "strengthen China's energy statistical system."

Analysts say that new efforts are needed because of long-standing problems with China's reporting and doubts about using its energy efficiency claims as a basis for a global warming treaty.

"We need to be able to rely on Chinese data," said Philip Andrews-Speed, a China energy expert at Scotland's University of Dundee in Edinburgh.

"I hope that this agreement provides an opportunity for more funding for the IEA to work with China in order to produce data that is both accurate and is presented accurately," Andrews-Speed told Radio Free Asia.

Faulty data

In the past, the IEA has complained that China does not provide enough data to estimate energy demand, creating uncertainty in world markets. Chinese officials have also complained that the country's rising consumption has been blamed unfairly for energy price growth.

The problems with accuracy fall into two categories, Andrews-Speed said. The first is that energy and environmental data comes from thousands of sources in China's provinces, municipalities and townships.

The second is that some officials have reportedly altered the data to meet government goals and advance their careers.

"Statistics will be massaged in order to address previously stated targets," Andrews-Speed said.

After a series of controversies, China has acknowledged problems with faulty figures. Tougher penalties are set to take effect under a new law next year.

Ma Jiantang, director of the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), said that fabricated or altered data accounts for 60 percent of violations under existing law, the official China Daily reported in June.

A probe by the National People's Congress found cases where officials overstated production by a factor of 10, the paper said.

Improved efficiency?

One problem for the climate treaty that faces a December deadline for negotiations in Copenhagen is that China has cited its energy efficiency as evidence that it is limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

China improved its energy efficiency by 10 percent between 2006 and 2008, according to official figures measuring the energy used to produce each unit of GDP.

But if the energy or economic numbers are inaccurate, the efficiency figures are wrong.

Critics say that China's official data should not be trusted on an issue as important as global warming.

"Everybody knows the data needs work," said Derek Scissors, research fellow for Asia economic policy at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

"Chinese data reporting right now in this area is just not worth anything," Scissors said in an interview. "A Copenhagen agreement that relies on China to report what it's doing is basically relying on things that are false."

'Positive' agreement

Scissors sees the cooperation agreement with the IEA as "entirely positive," as long as it does not affect assessments of China's performance.

"When things are getting better, the IEA should be able to say they're getting better ... but the IEA also needs to be able to say there are problems," Scissors said.

According to the joint statement, the IEA plans to strengthen personnel exchanges with the NBS and other agencies. Senior Chinese officials will be invited as observers to at least one meeting of the IEA governing board next year.

The IEA also said it will "strive to ensure an accurate reflection of China's situation in all its publications," while maintaining the "objective analytic stance that it is required to take with respect to all nations."

The agency's China specialists were traveling and unavailable for comment, a press official in Paris said.

China is estimated to be the world's largest source of greenhouse gases. The country will account for 28 percent of world emissions in 2020, the IEA said in a recent report.