The world will hardly know if global warming is being curbed if the largest emitter of carbon – China – isn’t releasing accurate data about its pollution.
That’s why it was correct for the United States to insist Thursday at the climate-change talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, that Beijing must be transparent about any claims of success in reducing greenhouse gases.
Without outside verification of carbon cuts in big polluting nations such as China and India, the US Senate is unlikely to pass a tough bill that would force Americans to reduce their consumption of fossil fuels.
And any international pact that sets hard targets for emissions reduction will mean nothing if there are suspicions of cheating or if some countries don’t pull their own weight.
The problem in China is that the ruling Communist Party has a long history of issuing false or at least unreliable data about its economy – as do many one-party regimes driven by ideology and that are often rife with corruption. Lower-level officials often cook official reports – or “add water,” as the Chinese say – to meet quotas set by Beijing or to protect their turf.
Beijing claims it has a campaign against statistical “falsification and embellishment.” Indeed, gathering information in the world’s most populous nation, which also has the third-largest and fastest-growing economy, is not easy.
Still, official figures – such as energy use per economic output – are often revised several times after the first announcement. Foreign economists regularly find discrepancies in China’s data. “One may begin to wonder about the possibility and likelihood of professional statistical work in China,” writes Carsten Holz, an economist at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, in a recent issue of the China Economic Quarterly.
Fiddling with figures is also widespread in China’s drive to increase renewable energy. Power companies, for instance, are required to produce 3 percent of electricity capacity – not actual electricity – from renewables. In many cases, the companies buy inexpensive wind turbines to meet that quota for capacity – but then the turbines break and are allowed to go idle. On the books, the companies have done their bit.
China has begun to cooperate with the International Energy Agency – a body of 28 oil-importing nations – to review its efforts on cleaner burning of coal. Such cooperation is essential in a country with the world’s third-largest reserves of coal and that still plans to rely for much of its energy on this dirty fuel.
But will it now agree to the US demand for a “pledge and review” process in a climate-change agreement?
At the Copenhagen talks, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said: “If there is not even a commitment [by China] to pursue transparency, that is a kind of deal breaker for us.”
In response, Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei said his government is ready for “dialogue and cooperation that is not intrusive, that does not infringe on China’s sovereignty.”
It may be that a deal can be worked out. As an incentive, the US joined other developed nations in committing to spend $100 billion by 2020 in developing countries for climate-change projects, such as adapting to higher sea levels or to save forests. Such a huge amount will likely lure poorer nations in Africa and Asia away from joining China in resisting the US demand for transparency.
These talks offer a good opportunity for China to open its bureaucracy for international oversight if its attempts to build a green economy are to be credible.