The 196 countries involved in implementing the Paris climate agreement have under-reported their greenhouse gas emissions by 8.5 to 13.3 billion tonnes per year, leaving delegates gathered in Glasgow for a final week of COP 26 negotiations to do their work on a foundation of flawed data, the Washington Post concludes in a deep-dive investigative piece published Sunday.
The review of emissions data filed with the United Nations climate secretariat “reveals a giant gap between what nations declare their emissions to be versus the greenhouse gases they are sending into the atmosphere,” the Post reports. The difference between the data and the reality is “big enough to move the needle on how much the Earth will warm.”
At minimum, the Post says, the difference in numbers is larger than the total annual emissions of the United States. At worst, it approaches the annual emissions from China, amounting to 23% of the warming caused by human activity.
“If we don’t know the state of emissions today, we don’t know whether we’re cutting emissions meaningfully and substantially,” said Global Carbon Project chair and Stanford University professor Rob Jackson. “The atmosphere ultimately is the truth. The atmosphere is what we care about. The concentration of methane and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is what’s affecting climate.”
“In the end, everything becomes a bit of a fantasy,” added physicist Philippe Ciais of the Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences in France. “Because between the world of reporting and the real world of emissions, you start to have large discrepancies.”
The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) put the difference down to “the application of different reporting formats and inconsistency in the scope and timeliness of reporting (such as between developed and developing countries, or across developing countries),” the Post writes. In an email, spokesperson Alexander Saier said more must be done to improve the emissions reporting process.
“We do acknowledge that more needs to be done, including finding ways to provide support to developing country Parties to improve their institutional and technical capacities,” he said.
The Post says the current reporting mechanisms are “so unwieldy that the United Nations does not have a complete database to track country emissions. Some 45 countries have not reported any new greenhouse gas numbers since 2009,” and major fossil exporter Algeria hasn’t filed its data since 2000.
In its analysis, the Post found that 59% of the discrepancy comes from the way countries measure emissions associated with land use—including their use of controversial carbon offset schemes in a bid to balance continued burning of fossil fuels.
“Much of the gap is driven by subtractions countries have made on their balance sheets,” the news story states. “Many scientists say countries should only claim these greenhouse gas reductions when they take clear action, as opposed to claiming natural forest regrowth unrelated to national policies,” particularly when “some of this carbon absorption isn’t even happening—or at least not on the scale that countries assert.”
The story identifies methane emissions and fluorinated gases as other big problem areas.
Click here for the full investigative story on the Washington Post.