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China has been burning way more coal than previously reported

Revised estimates could complicate efforts to curb carbon emissions ahead of Paris climate change conference

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

China has been burning substantially more coal than previously believed, according to new government figures released this week. As The New York Times reports, the revised data show that China has been burning 17 percent more coal per year than previously reported, which early estimates equate to nearly 1 billion tons of additional carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. The revisions, based on new 2013 census data, show that China's coal consumption has been underestimated since 2000.

China is already the world's largest emitter of carbon dioxide from coal, and the government has pledged to reduce its dependence ahead of a UN climate change conference in Paris this year, where world leaders hope to reach a global agreement on curbing greenhouse gas emissions. The country aims to have its carbon dioxide emissions peak by 2030, though this week's revelations suggest that more urgent action may be needed. In 2012, for example, the country consumed 600 million more tons of coal than previously reported, which equates to more than 70 percent of the coal used every year in the US. Chinese officials have yet to comment on the findings.

"It’s created a lot of consternation."

"It’s created a lot of consternation," Lin Boqiang, director of the China Center for Energy Economics Research, tells the Times. "Our basic data will have to be adjusted, and the international agencies will also have to adjust their databases. This is troublesome because many forecasts and commitments were based on the previous data."

The Times notes that China's revision will not have any effect on previous estimates of total carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, which are measured directly. The task for scientists, then, is to identify where the additional CO2 from China's coal-burning plants was absorbed — possibly in forests or oceans.

On Wednesday, Chinese premier Li Keqiang reiterated the country's commitment to curbing its pollution, describing it as a "duty to humanity" during a meeting with French President François Hollande.