A New York Times cover story suggests that China is the new Volkswagen. China, like Volkswagen, has for years been systematically understating the air pollution it generates, carbon emissions in particular, and not by a narrow margin, but by a factor of more than 2. In the case of China, it is a result of factories that failed to report their coal-burning activities. It turns out that less than half of the coal-burning factories in China were being counted. It is similar to the news we got from Volkswagen a few days ago, not about unreported cars, but cars whose emissions were not being accurately estimated.
The combined effect is dismaying. A world that appeared to be on its way to coming to grips with air pollution was, in fact, merely falsifying its records to make things look good while the situation continued to spiral out of control. Neither Volkswagen nor China is a minor detail in the atmosphere. Volkswagen, before its recent scandals, had vied to be the world’s largest manufacturer of fuel-burning cars. China burns more fossil fuels than any other country. If large parts of the carbon emissions and other pollutants are more than double what we had planned on, all the current climate plans are revealed to be bogus. The world has to go back to the drawing board – and the period of action in which we might potentially meet the currently stated goals is years shorter than we thought it was.