Improved Efficiency, or Not

China's latest revision of economic and energy figures has raised climate concerns, experts say.
By Michael Lelyveld
2010-01-04
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BOSTON—China has greatly improved its energy efficiency, according to new official figures, but analysts are questioning the revisions less than a week after troubled climate talks.

On Dec. 25, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) released revised estimates of China's economic performance and energy use for 2008. Both showed better results than the official numbers reported 10 months before.

Instead of growing 9 percent in 2008, the economy expanded 9.6 percent, the NBS said. The country's energy use per unit of GDP also fell 5.2 percent, an improvement over the 4.5-percent gain in energy efficiency reported earlier.

With the new data, China has moved closer to meeting its five-year target of raising energy efficiency 20 percent by the end of 2010. In 2008, energy use per unit of GDP dropped 12.4 percent compared with 2005, the NBS said.

But experts are doubtful about revisions that show such marked improvements.

"If I was faced with the task of approving [them], I would say that we must question these statistics," said Robert Ebel, senior adviser to the energy and national security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Numbers doubted


"They're simply there to allow them to meet a certain goal," Ebel told Radio Free Asia. "The word goes out that they have to meet that 20 percent, so everybody responds, whether it's true or not."

The NBS has repeatedly faced criticism over the reliability of its reporting, but the issue has taken on greater significance because of climate change.

On Dec. 19, a U.N. summit in Copenhagen failed to produce a binding treaty on cutting greenhouse gases, but a five-nation accord including the United States and China called for pledges to curb carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

China has promised to reduce carbon intensity by 40 to 45 percent in 2020, using a formula similar to its energy efficiency goals.

While the CO2 content of China's output would drop, its total emissions would grow along with the size of the economy. The United States plans to cut total emissions by 17 percent, regardless of economic growth.

But China's revision of its economic and energy data has raised new doubts about its environmental claims.

Mikkal Herberg, research director for energy security at the Seattle-based National Bureau of Asian Research, said that Premier Wen Jiabao must have been aware of China's improved estimates during the Copenhagen talks.

With higher GDP growth figures for 2008, China's goal of cutting emissions per unit of GDP now looks less ambitious than before.

"One would have to assume that the leadership—Wen Jiabao, for example—would know that these economic revisions were coming, know that the economy's growth in 2008 was going to be revised up," Herberg said.

Little change?

The adjusted numbers make the carbon targets more achievable because the economy appears to be growing that much faster than emissions.

"I don't think it's necessarily a terrifically ambitious goal," Herberg said. "I think it's simply a continuation of what they would be doing anyway."

The accuracy of NBS data was a major issue for the Copenhagen conference, since China is the largest emitter of CO2.

U.S. officials insisted on targets that would be "measurable, reportable and verifiable," but China vowed to resist any accounting that would infringe on its sovereignty.

The five-nation agreement calls for "international consultations and analysis under clearly defined guidelines that will ensure that national sovereignty is respected."

But experts believe that international audits will only be able to verify China's reports within an approximate range.

"There's no outside independent way of verifying these revisions," said Herberg. "I tend to believe that the Chinese statistics are getting better over time gradually, but there's still a long way to go."

Robert Ebel said it will be hard to substantiate the climate pledges from a host of countries, posing problems for a new treaty.

"If you start checking country by country and try to determine who's telling the truth and who isn't, you'd never get the job done," Ebel said.

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