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Reduced carbon emission estimates from fossil fuel combustion and cement production in China


Nearly three-quarters of the growth in global carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and cement production between 2010 and 2012 occurred in China1,2. Yet estimates of Chinese emissions remain subject to large uncertainty; inventories of China’s total fossil fuel carbon emissions in 2008 differ by 0.3 gigatonnes of carbon, or 15 per cent1,3,4,5. The primary sources of this uncertainty are conflicting estimates of energy consumption and emission factors, the latter being uncertain because of very few actual measurements representative of the mix of Chinese fuels. Here we re-evaluate China’s carbon emissions using updated and harmonized energy consumption and clinker production data and two new and comprehensive sets of measured emission factors for Chinese coal. We find that total energy consumption in China was 10 per cent higher in 2000–2012 than the value reported by China’s national statistics6, that emission factors for Chinese coal are on average 40 per cent lower than the default values recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change7, and that emissions from China’s cement production are 45 per cent less than recent estimates1,4. Altogether, our revised estimate of China’s CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and cement production is 2.49 gigatonnes of carbon (2 standard deviations = ±7.3 per cent) in 2013, which is 14 per cent lower than the emissions reported by other prominent inventories1,4,8. Over the full period 2000 to 2013, our revised estimates are 2.9 gigatonnes of carbon less than previous estimates of China’s cumulative carbon emissions1,4. Our findings suggest that overestimation of China’s emissions in 2000–2013 may be larger than China’s estimated total forest sink in 1990–2007 (2.66 gigatonnes of carbon)9 or China’s land carbon sink in 2000–2009 (2.6 gigatonnes of carbon)10.

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Figure 1: Total carbon content and production of coal mines.
Figure 2: Histograms of Chinese coal properties.
Figure 3: Comparison of emission factors in 2012.
Figure 4: Estimates of Chinese CO2 emissions 1990–2013.

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This work was supported by the Strategic Priority Research Program “Climate Change: Carbon Budget and Relevant Issues” of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and by China’s National Basic Research Program and National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) funded projects (grants XDA05010109, 2014CB441301, XDA05010110, XDA05010103, XDA05010101, 41328008 and 41222036). Z.L. acknowledges Harvard University Giorgio Ruffolo fellowship and support from Italy’s Ministry for Environment, Land and Sea. D.G. acknowledges the Economic and Social Research Council funded project “Dynamics of Green Growth in European and Chinese Cities” (ES/L016028) and the Philip Leverhulme Prize. S.J.D. acknowledges support from the Institute of Applied Ecology, Chinese Academy of Sciences Fellowships for Young International Distinguished Scientists. P.C. and S.P. acknowledge support of the European Research Council Synergy grant ERC-2013-SyG 610028-IMBALANCE-P. R.J.A. and T.A.B. were sponsored by the US Department of Energy, Office of Science, Biological and Environmental Research under US Department of Energy contract DE-AC05-00OR22725. J. Lin acknowledges the NSFC (41422502 and 41175127). J. Liu acknowledges the International Science & Technology Cooperation Program of China (2012DFA91530), the NSFC (41161140353, 91425303), The Natural Science Foundation of Beijing, China (8151002), the National Program for Support of Top-notch Young Professionals, and Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities (TD-JC-2013-2). F.X. acknowledges the NSFC (41473076), China CDM Fund (2013051, 2013124) and Shenyang Science and Technology Planning (F14-232-6-01, F14-134-9-00). G.P.P. acknowledges funding from the Norwegian Research Council (235523). The authors are grateful to S. Piao, L. Cao and J. Yan for insightful comments.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



Z.L. and D.G. designed the paper. Z.L. conceived the research. Z.L. provided the data from 4,243 coal mines. W.W. and J.B. provided the measurement data from 602 coal samples. S.J.D., J.B., Q.Z., R.J.A. and T.A.B. provided the reference data. Z.L., D.G., S.J.D., P.C., S.P., J.L., H.Z., C.H., Y.L. and Q.Z. performed the analysis. S.J.D., S.P., Z.L., H.Z. and K.F. drew the figures. All authors contributed to writing the paper.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Zhu Liu, Dabo Guan, Wei Wei or Kebin He.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Uncertainty distribution of Chinese CO2 emissions 1997–2012.

Monte Carlo simulations of the Chinese carbon emissions based on a blended activity data set where national and provincial data are assigned equal probabilities (n = 100,000). Chinese carbon emissions based on national energy activity data (EN) and provincial activity energy data (EP) in 2012 are shown on the right bar.

Extended Data Figure 2 Total fossil fuel energy consumption based upon national statistics, provincial statistics and calculations in this study.

Extended Data Figure 3 Location of 4,243 coal mines with annual production and 602 coal samples.

The coal samples and mines are consistent with spatial distribution.

Extended Data Figure 4 Emission estimates of China’s cement production by different sources.

Extended Data Figure 5 Growth rate of carbon emissions, based upon BP, EGDAR, IEA and calculations in this study, and industrial products.

Industrial products comprise the production of cement, iron, steel and power generation. The emission trends calculated in this study are consistent with the trends of industrial production.

Extended Data Table 1 Twenty-four emission inventories of fossil fuel combustion based on reported emission factors and fuel inventories in China.

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Liu, Z., Guan, D., Wei, W. et al. Reduced carbon emission estimates from fossil fuel combustion and cement production in China. Nature 524, 335–338 (2015).

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