To limit greenhouse gas emissions, improve the way we measure them
The need to address climate change has reached a new level of global urgency. President Biden recently hosted his third Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate (MEF) to build on the progress from the UN’s COP26 summit and strengthen global climate action. World leaders across 19 countries gathered virtually to discuss their top climate priorities — including steps to reduce methane emissions, increase zero-emission vehicle adoption and decarbonize ocean-based shipping across nations.
To measure climate action commitments across nations, the UN collects volumes of data from countries to calculate the global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that contribute to climate change. When the UN notes that countries need to trim 55 percent of their GHG emissions by 2030 to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, for example, that request is based on country-reported emission estimates, and related commitments to reduce their emissions.
Calculating such emissions can be challenging. Countries around the globe have been reporting emissions data for decades, however, countries are still challenged by access to data, expertise needed to quantify emissions, as well as the complex systems that generate emissions from land, agriculture and industry. Through carefully negotiated processes, systems exist to support and verify emissions across countries and at state, city or corporate scales.
However, there is no single arbiter to certify that the total global emissions are being accurately calculated. This remains a challenge for meeting climate goals — put simply, we can’t manage what we don’t measure.
GHG accounting is particularly challenging for emerging economies. Emissions monitoring and reporting by industry or other emitters is limited. Regional or country-specific information on the processes that yield emissions is often not available, leading to the use of default assumptions; and the resources needed to invest in high quality emissions accounting are constrained due to the multiple development priorities that must be addressed.
With the continued urgency to address the climate crisis increases at every scale, many more entities are calculating and reporting emissions and setting reduction targets, including corporations responding to increasing demands from stakeholders for improved social and environmental responsibility, to municipalities that prioritize carbon action within policy decisions. However, the GHG emissions across these scales don’t add up — especially when combined and compared against country reports.
In addition, unfortunately, some countries may intentionally misrepresent their emissions, making it tougher for global GHG accounting efforts to be accurate. It’s important for international organizations to identify where the in-country gaps and inaccuracies in reporting are, and help fill them in with science, guidelines, policies and steps supported by local organizations and experts that can validate GHG estimates. With recent technological advancements, such as satellite monitoring designed specifically for GHG accounting and powerful data-sharing platforms, better carbon accounting is possible.
Many low- and middle-income countries will continue to need additional support from high-income countries to help them improve GHG measurement and reporting functions. The needs are particularly urgent around capacity building, information sharing and reporting validation. Multiple avenues of independent verification are needed so that countries can hold each other accountable.
While the UN’s warnings of high GHG emissions continue to grow stronger, there is a silver lining. In the past, climate science has suggested that even if there was a pause in carbon dioxide emissions (CO2), the most prevalent GHG in the atmosphere by far, it will continue contributing to climate change for another 30 to 40 years. Thanks to new research, scientists have trimmed down that timeline, indicating that rapid action to dramatically reduce or eliminate emissions can have a near-term impact and avoid catastrophic climate disruption. While this finding is encouraging, the drumbeat for urgent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions is only getting stronger — large-scale, rapid emission reductions are urgently needed to avoid increasingly catastrophic impacts of climate change.
It will be challenging, but not impossible to make sure GHG measurement and reporting helps us understand how to protect against the most dire predictions of climate change. We must ensure that investments directed toward greenhouse gas management really do bend the curve to lower global emissions. Meeting ambitious climate goals and achieving the vision set out by the Paris agreement requires it.
Marian Van Pelt is a senior vice president of climate and clean energy, as well as a Climate Center Senior fellow at ICF consulting firm.