Washington Post Inquiry: “Climate Commitments Based on False Data”

Washington Post Inquiry: “Climate Commitments Based on False Data”
Washington Post Inquiry: “Climate Commitments Based on False Data”

“Malaysia’s latest report on its greenhouse gas emissions provided to the United Nations appears to come from a parallel universe. According to the document, in fact, Malaysian trees absorb carbon four times faster than similar forests in neighboring Indonesia ”. The Washington Post warns: many countries around the world underestimate their greenhouse gas emissions in the reports they then provide to the United Nations. This creates a huge gap between declared and actual emissions. According to the newspaper that examined 196 national reports, this gap ranges from 8.5 billion to 13.3 billion tons of emissions. The difference between the declared and the actual is so large that it is close to China’s emissions and comprises 23% of humanity’s total contribution to global warming.

The American newspaper reached these conclusions after comparing the data that countries have provided to the United Nations in different formats and which have updated the UNFCCC – the United Nations Convention on Climate Change – with that provided by other organizations and by independent bodies such as FAO or Copernicus. The Post explains that to carry out the research it had to make up for the lack of data for some years in the UNFCCC using a statistical model that would have estimated the total emissions for each country in the year 2019.

According to the United Nations Agency, the gap identified by the Post is due to “the application of different reporting formats and the inconsistency in the scope and timeliness of reporting (as between developed and developing countries)”. However, the Post reports that the difference is also due to reports that are “incomplete”, to errors that appear “intentional” and to rules “drawn in a questionable way”. In any case, the result is a significant underestimation of emissions which, according to the newspaper, “is large enough to change the estimate of how much the Earth will warm up in the coming years”.

The “tricks” on Co2 emissions

According to the Post, 59% of the gap comes from the way countries report emissions from the soil, “a unique sector because it can both favor and damage the climate”. In fact, the earth can absorb carbon as plants grow and the soil stores it, or carbon dioxide can rise back into the atmosphere when forests are cleared or burned and when peatlands are drained and begin to emit large quantities of CO2. So many countries have tried to offset the emissions deriving from the combustion of fossil fuels by claiming that carbon is absorbed by the land within their borders. According to the Post, “UN rules allow countries like China, Russia and the United States to each steal more than half a billion tons of annual emissions in this way, and in the future they could allow these and other countries to continue to release. significant emissions, while they claim to have completely eliminated them ”.

One of the most obvious cases of these “subtractions” is Malaysia. According to data compiled by the FAO, the country released 422 million tons of greenhouse gases in 2016. It is therefore among the 25 countries that emit the highest emissions. However, the Malaysian government has said that the trees in the country’s forests are capable of consuming large amounts of carbon dioxide. For this reason the emissions reported to the United Nations are equal to 81 million tons (to give a measure, they are lower than those caused by Belgium). In particular, Malaysia has claimed to be able to absorb 243 million tons of carbon from just 68 square miles of forested area. A figure not far from what neighboring Indonesia declares for a forest that is five times the size of the Malaysian one. UN technical reviewers questioned Malaysia’s report. “There seems to be a mistake because it is totally impossible to think that the entire forest area of ​​Malaysia accumulates the equivalent of young tropical forests,” said Jérôme Chave, research director at CNRS (French National Center for Scientific Research). .

The Malaysian government also downplayed the climate impact of the palm oil industry in its reports to the United Nations. In 2016, it stated that it had not converted a single acre (which corresponds to 0.4 hectares) into cultivated land. A peer study funded by the Malaysian government itself, however, documented a strong expansion in the same year of oil palm plantations and estimated that 138 tons of carbon dioxide were released per hectare in the converted areas. The country then calculated that its cultivated land emitted only 29 million tons of CO2 in 2016. An estimate “too low” according to John Couwenberg, a peat expert at the University of Greifswald in Germany. The scholar reworked the numbers for the Post and got a total of 111 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions. In other words, Malaysia’s peat bog emissions, as reported by the newspaper, “could easily be about three times higher than the country’s reported”.

Data on methane emissions: + 57-76 million tons

A second very important part that is missing from the United Nations database is the one concerning methane emissions. Data from the Copernicus Organization detects between 57 and 76 million tons more emissions than national United Nations reports.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), Russia is the main culprit of methane emissions in the world, but this does not correspond to what Russia reports to the United Nations. Its official emission numbers are millions of tonnes lower than those of independent bodies. Similar subtractions are also carried out by major oil and gas producers in the Persian Gulf region, such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. They too, according to the Post, report very low levels of emissions, “which do not align with other scientific datasets.” More than 100 countries signed the new Global Methane Pledge a few days ago at the UN climate change conference Cop26 in Glasgow, an initiative launched by the United States and the EU, which aims to reduce emissions by 30% by end of the decade. But some of the countries responsible for the most methane emissions in the world, including China, Russia and India, have not joined the agreement.

Among the underestimated gas emissions there are also those of fluorinated gases. These are the gases used in air conditioning, refrigeration and the electrical industry, and the Post found that dozens of countries do not report such emissions at all. One among all was Vietnam, for example, which reported that its emissions of fluorinated gases plummeted between 2013 and 2016 to 23,000 tons of CO2 equivalent. According to the Copernicus Organization, Vietnam’s 2016 figures are 99.8% lower than those for real emissions. When the Post asked for explanations about the Vietnamese government, it was replied that “according to recent studies it has been proven that fluorinated gases do not escape from air conditioning or refrigeration systems”.

Why the large gap between declared and actual emissions?

The large gaps in emissions statistics mainly stem from the United Nations reporting system. In fact, developed countries have certain standards that they must comply with in their reports. For example, a time limit for reporting, as well as a duty to provide detailed descriptive and numerical information with respect to all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and removals, implied emission factors and activity data. However, these standards are not required of developing countries, which have so much freedom to decide how and when to report their emissions.

Even when least developed countries report emissions data on time, they are often full of inaccuracies. The Post gives the example of the Central African Republic, which in 2010 declared that it had absorbed 1.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide through its land. An “immense and unlikely” quantity that, the Post emphasizes, “would effectively offset Russia’s annual emissions”.

Then there are 45 countries that, according to the Post, have not reported any increase in greenhouse gases since 2009. Algeria, one of the main producers of oil and gas, has not presented surveys since 2000. Libya, a another major energy exporter, has never reported data on its emissions. Turkmenistan, whose economy is fueled by oil and gas, has not made an emissions report since 2010, although in recent years it has been repeatedly criticized for major methane leaks. Among the countries that have made significant underestimates of emissions there is also Australia. A study carried out by Philippe Ciais, scientist of the French Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences, together with his colleagues, revealed how the country has “cheated” on emissions of nitrous oxide – a powerful heating agent that comes mainly from agriculture – related to 2016, declaring three times less than the actual ones. The figure was confirmed by the FAO report, viewed by the Post.

Ciais, who has also researched Brazil, explains that another factor why the UN reports are incomplete is that “the UN reporting guidelines currently do not require any atmospheric or satellite measurements, known as an approach” top-down ‘”. Rather, the guidelines ask each country’s scientific accountants to quantify the levels of a particular business. “This includes the number of cows, the amount of fertilizer used or the amount of peatland converted to farmland in a given year. Then, countries multiply those units by an ’emission factor’ – an estimate of the amount of gas produced by each activity – to determine a total of emissions ”. A figure that is often very inaccurate.

“I am not at all surprised that your newspaper has found all kinds of discrepancies in the data or that countries are playing some games in the climate field,” Dan Reifsnyder, a former US official who co-chaired the post, commented to the Post. the negotiations for the Paris Agreement. “The climate sector is a very fertile area to explore.” The Washington Post report comes in the second and final week of COP26 talks. And it seems to want to warn the public that any result obtained in the march to protect the climate would not be sufficient, however, since it is based on inaccurate data.

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