Countries’ climate pledgesbuilt on flawed data,Post investigation finds

A large plantation of palm trees, which produce palm oil, borders an undrained peat forest in Simunjan in the Sarawak region of Malaysia. When peat-rich bogs are drained and converted to farmlands, they release a rapid pulse of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as the once-waterlogged plants’ remains degrade with the sudden exposure to air.

Malaysia’s latest catalogue of its greenhouse gas emissions to the United Nations reads like a report from a parallel universe. The 285-page document suggests that Malaysia’s trees are absorbing carbon four times faster than similar forests in neighboring Indonesia.

The surprising claim has allowed the country to subtract over 243 million tons of carbon dioxide from its 2016 inventory — slashing 73 percent of emissions from its bottom line.

Want to know how much a ton of greenhouse gases really amounts to? Use our calculator throughout the story.

Across the world, many countries underreport their greenhouse gas emissions in their reports to the United Nations, a Washington Post investigation has found. An examination of 196 country reports reveals a giant gap between what nations declare their emissions to be versus the greenhouse gases they are sending into the atmosphere. The gap ranges from at least 8.5 billion to as high as 13.3 billion tons a year of underreported emissions — big enough to move the needle on how much the Earth will warm.

The plan to save the world from the worst of climate change is built on data. But the data the world is relying on is inaccurate.

“If we don’t know the state of emissions today, we don’t know whether we’re cutting emissions meaningfully and substantially,” said Rob Jackson, a professor at Stanford University and chair of the Global Carbon Project, a collaboration of hundreds of researchers. “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.”

At the low end, the gap is larger than the yearly emissions of the United States. At the high end, it approaches the emissions of China and comprises 23 percent of humanity’s total contribution to the planet’s warming, The Post found.

As tens of thousands of people are convening in Glasgow for what may be the largest-ever meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), also known as COP26, the numbers they are using to help guide the world’s effort to curb greenhouse gases represent a flawed road map.

That means the challenge is even larger than world leaders have acknowledged.

“In the end, everything becomes a bit of a fantasy,” said Philippe Ciais, a scientist with France’s Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences who tracks emissions based on satellite data. “Because between the world of reporting and the real world of emissions, you start to have large discrepancies.”

The UNFCCC collects country reports and oversees the Paris agreement, which brought the world together to progressively reduce emissions in 2015. The U.N. agency attributed the gap that The Post identified 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).”

When asked if the United Nations plans on addressing the gap, spokesman Alexander Saier said in an email it is continuing its efforts to strengthen the reporting process.

“However, 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.”

The gap comprises vast amounts of missing carbon dioxide and methane emissions as well as smaller amounts of powerful synthetic gases. It is the result of questionably drawn rules, incomplete reporting in some countries and apparently willful mistakes in others — and the fact that in some cases, humanity’s full impacts on the planet are not even required to be reported.

The Post’s analysis is based on a data set it built from emissions figures countries reported to the United Nations in a variety of formats. To overcome the problem of missing years of data, reporters used a statistical model to estimate the emissions each country would have reported in 2019, then compared that total to other scientific data sets measuring global greenhouse gases.

[Measuring the Invisible: How The Post did its global emissions analysis]

The analysis found at least 59 percent of the gap stems from how countries account for emissions from land, a unique sector in that it can both help and harm the climate. Land can draw in carbon as plants grow and soils store it away — or it can all go back up into the atmosphere as forests are logged or burn and as peat-rich bogs are drained and start to emit large amounts of carbon dioxide.

A key area of controversy is that many countries attempt to offset the emissions from burning fossil fuels by claiming that carbon is absorbed by land within their borders. U.N. rules allow countries, such as China, Russia and the United States, each to subtract more than half a billion tons of annual emissions in this manner, and in the future could allow these and other countries to continue to release significant emissions while claiming to be “net zero.”

In other words, much of the gap is driven by subtractions countries have made on their balance sheets. 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.

And some of this carbon absorption isn’t even happening — or at least not on the scale that countries assert.

Malaysia, for example, released 422 million tons of greenhouse gases in 2016, placing it among the world’s top 25 emitters that year, according to data compiled by Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. But because Malaysia claims its trees are consuming vast amounts of CO2, its reported emissions to the United Nations are just 81 million tons, less than those of the small European nation of Belgium.

In Sarawak, nearly 4,000 square miles of peatlands have been drained in recent decades to make way for plantations for palm oil, commonly used in products ranging from biofuels to processed foods, soaps, and makeup.

The Post found that methane emissions comprise a second major portion of the missing greenhouse gases in the U.N. database. Independent scientific data sets show between 57 million and 76 million tons more of human-caused methane emissions hitting the atmosphere than U.N. country reports do. That converts to between 1.6 billion and 2.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions.

Scientific research indicates that countries are undercounting methane of all kinds: in the oil and gas sector, where it leaks from pipelines and other sources; in agriculture, where it wafts upward from the burps and waste of cows and other ruminant animals; and in human waste, where landfills are a major source.

European Union officials estimate that rapid reductions in methane could trim at least 0.2 degrees Celsius from overall global temperature rise by 2050. More than 100 nations have now signed onto the newly formed Global Methane Pledge, an initiative launched by the United States and the E.U., which aims to cut emissions 30 percent by the end of the decade. But some of the world’s biggest methane emitters, including China and Russia, have yet to join to pact.

President Biden told delegates meeting in Glasgow that cutting methane emissions is essential to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

“One of the most important things we can do in this decisive decade — to keep 1.5 degrees in reach — is reduce our methane emissions as quickly as possible,” Biden said.

 4:59
The Post found that countries around the world are underreporting their greenhouse gas emissions, and that true emissions are likely 16 to 23 percent higher. (Danielle Kunitz, Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

A new generation of sophisticated satellites that can measure greenhouse gases are now orbiting Earth, and they can detect massive emissions leaks. Data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) lists Russia as the world’s top oil and gas methane emitter, but that’s not what Russia reports to the United Nations. Its official numbers fall millions of tons shy of what independent scientific analyses show, a Post investigation found. Many oil and gas producers in the Persian Gulf region, such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, also report very small levels of oil and gas methane emission that don’t line up with other scientific data sets.

“It’s hard to imagine how policymakers are going to pursue ambitious climate actions if they’re not getting the right data from national governments on how big the problem is,” said Glenn Hurowitz, chief executive of Mighty Earth, an environmental advocacy group.

[Russia allows methane leaks at planet’s peril]

Meanwhile, fluorinated gases, which are exclusively human-made, also are underreported significantly. Known as “F-gases,” they are used in air conditioning, refrigeration and the electricity industry. But The Post found that dozens of countries don’t report these emissions at all — a major shortcoming since some of these potent greenhouse gases are a growing part of the world’s climate problem.

Vietnam, for example, reported that its emissions of fluorinated gases plunged between 2013 and 2016, to 23 thousand tons of CO2 equivalent. Asked about the 2016 estimate — which is 99.8 percent lower than what’s indicated in one key scientific emissions data set used by The Post — Vietnamese officials said more recent reports assume fluorinated gases do not escape from air conditioning and refrigeration systems. But they do: U.S. supermarkets lose an average of 25 percent of their fluorinated refrigerants each year.

Many problems causing the gap in emissions statistics stem from the U.N. reporting system. Developed countries have one set of standards, while developing countries have another, with wide latitude to decide how and what and when they report. The difference in reporting reflects the reality that the developed nations are historically responsible for most of the greenhouse gases that have built up in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, and that they have greater technical capacity to analyze their emissions than poorer nations.

Even when countries do report their emissions, the U.N. data can be peppered with inaccuracies. The data set, for instance, shows that in 2010, land in the Central African Republic absorbed 1.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide, an immense and improbable amount that would effectively offset the annual emissions of Russia.

When The Post pointed out the Central African Republic’s figure to the UNFCCC, the agency acknowledged that “the reported data may require further clarification, and we will reach out to the Party for additional information and update the data in the GHG (greenhouse gases) data interface accordingly.” The Central African Republic did not respond to The Post’s requests for clarification.

“The commitments of the Paris agreement without measurements of actual atmospheric emissions are like the parties going on diets without ever having to weigh themselves,” said Ray Weiss, an atmospheric scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.

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