Countries are underreporting their annual CO2 emissions, even as they pledge to reduce them, an independent investigation by the Washington Post has found. The Post’s analysis, which compared countries’ reported and predicted numbers to independent global emission measurements, found that 8.5 bn-13.3 bn tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions went unaccounted for. The Post based its analysis on scientific and atmospheric data from the Global Carbon Project, the World Meteorological Organization, and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Why is this a problem? UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report, released last month ahead of COP26, found that new and updated Nationally Determined Contributions offered for 2030 would lead to a 2.7°C temperature rise in this century — 1.2°C higher than the 1.5°C set out in the Paris Agreement. So even if emissions reporting were 100% accurate, the planet would continue to warm at a faster rate than we want it to.
There’s a huge emissions data gap: Of 196 countries, only 45 (mostly developed) countries reported their emissions to COP in 2019, which is required of parties to the convention. The UNFCCC’s reporting system allows developed countries and developing countries to use different standards, creating an unbalanced reporting system. Developed countries, particularly the G20, are the world’s largest emitters, and have more tools and technical knowledge to measure and report emissions. But that doesn’t mean they necessarily report more accurate numbers, just that they report them at all.
And developing countries — including Egypt — are way behind: Many large emitters, including large oil and gas producers like Iran, Qatar and Algeria, haven’t filed reports for over a decade and war-torn gas producers like Libya have never reported emissions. Around 45 countries have not reported any numbers since 2009. In a previous edition of Hardhat, we looked at Egypt’s most-polluting sectors, but found that there was no consolidated data and the most recent figures available are several years old.
Egypt ranks third behind Saudi Arabia and Iran in MENA when it comes to emissions, according to the World Resources Institute CAIT database (pdf), producing 310 mn tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gas emissions in 2016. Egypt’s emissions grew by 140% between 1990 and 2016 — an average compound annual growth rate of 3.5%, which is three times faster than the global average.
Some 57-76 mn tonnes of human-caused methane emissions go unreported in UN country reports, according to The Post. Methane leaks through pipelines in the oil and gas industry, and is emitted through the burps and dung of cows, as well as from human waste in landfills. Cows are notorious emitters of greenhouse gases, contributing to 60% of total livestock emissions, with 40% of those being methane, while artificial fertilizers release nitrogen into the soil, which is then turned into nitrous oxide. Fluorinated gases from air conditioners, refrigerators and electricity, are also underreported, or not reported at all.
Nobody wants to claim responsibility for international air travel and shipping, which together account for more than 1 bn tons of emissions. This amounts to 2% of all human-induced carbon emissions. The Environmental Defense Fund is one organization working to reduce emissions from international air travel through its Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, or CORSIA, with 81 nations agreeing to participate in its first voluntary phase.
Fossil fuels are not the only sector under the microscope: Burning fossil fuels accounts for the greatest emissions of greenhouse gases — and the most measurable — but other sectors are also problematic, partly because of how difficult it is to measure their impact. Some of the fallacies of reporting include not accounting for encroaching megafires, as is the case with Australia, or underplaying the impact of draining peatlands to make way for palm oil plantations, as is the case with Malaysia. It is more difficult to calculate emissions from chopping down forests, wildfires, draining peatlands or use of nitrogen fertilizers than it is to calculate emissions from burning fossil fuels.
A combination of unclear metrics, partial reporting and “willful mistakes” are creating gaps in our understanding of our carbon footprint. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s (UNFCCC) guidelines rely on bookkeepers to tally different emissions-producing activities such as the number of cows in a given country or the amount of fertilizer used, and then multiply them by an emission factor — all of which are subject to human error. The absence of atmospheric or satellite measurements in country reports means that many countries are underestimating their emissions and overestimating the impact of the measures being taken to reverse climate change.
At least 59% of the discrepancy comes from how countries account for their emissions from land use. One of the most controversial reporting practices is how countries are using carbon offsets to get closer to net zero, claiming that their emissions are offset by carbon sinks — landmassess that absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than they produce. These can potentially offset the emissions produced by countries, but due to approximate reporting, countries often miscalculate and misreport the scale of the offset.
That said, carbon offsets provide one way for countries and companies to slash their emissions. Carbon offsetting through carbon markets, detailed in Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, allows countries and companies to fund emissions cuts elsewhere, (preventing deforestation, for example) to contribute towards their emission reduction goals. The UNEP Emissions Gap Report highlights carbon markets as one mechanism that can help slash emissions, provided that “rules are clearly defined and target actual reductions in emissions, while being supported by arrangements to track progress and provide transparency.” Although the EU established the world’s first carbon market in 2005 — the Emissions Trading System (ETS) — COP26 marked the first time that some 200 countries reached an agreement that set out rules to regulate global carbon markets. The global carbon market, which some experts estimate could be valued at USD 22 tn by 2050, allows countries to purchase emissions reductions, effectively accumulating carbon credits.
Experts have estimated that developing robust reporting systems and improving transparency in climate reporting might take until 2030 — the same time frame over which scientists say emissions must be halved. Unverified by independent scientific and atmospheric data, the science of reporting continues to be inexact. The Post’s findings indicate that it is only by relying on hard data and sound data collection methodologies that countries can begin to make meaningful pledges and report their progress toward achieving them.
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