Great data? Climate-changing emissions accounting in crisis

Written by Eila Egertholdt, CNN With climate change grabbing headlines around the world, governments have begun to consider the root causes of such changes. One problem they have faced is the need to quantify…

Great data? Climate-changing emissions accounting in crisis

Written by Eila Egertholdt, CNN

With climate change grabbing headlines around the world, governments have begun to consider the root causes of such changes.

One problem they have faced is the need to quantify the global impact of their CO2 emissions, as well as calculate the likely cost of their actions, such as constructing green roofs or bike lanes. But new research into a flagship carbon emissions plan proposed by the Australian government has found that in reality, such reporting is less than rigorous.

The 2017 Climate Change Agreement negotiated at the UN climate summit in Marrakech last November and signed into law by Australia’s government allowed regulators to take account of data on emissions cutbacks made by businesses, state governments, the federal government and NGOs when assessing the impact of green initiatives on the environment.

The results were used to calculate the projected emissions cutbacks under Australia’s commitments, which include a target to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 5% below the 2010 levels, compared to 30% by 2030.

But since then, experts have questioned whether such a calculation is in fact effective, and have shown how different companies, states and countries — including Germany, Germany, France, Italy, China, the US and the UK — have made very different choices in seeking to cut their carbon emissions.

High pressure to calculate cuts

Researchers from the Australian National University in Canberra found that the reporting process itself, implemented under the federal Climate Change Authority, was extremely weak. Such a lack of transparency, the report argued, meant policymakers would be hampered in their attempt to adapt to the significant changes expected to occur by 2020.

As a result, the report called for full public transparency when it comes to carbon emissions data, better reporting of greenhouse gas reduction targets by governments, and strengthened reporting standards for governments that implement climate protection strategies, such as sunflower gardens.

“The carbon dioxide emissions reporting requirement was implemented to help answer a couple of questions, which are: ‘Where are the emissions going? How can we stop them?’ And the second, ‘where have the emissions gone?'” says Michael Harvey, one of the study’s authors.

“In the best of circumstances that’s a fine line. So it’s not about identifying the emission sinks, or putting them in an easily accessible place. It’s about digging out all of these emissions and putting them in your in-tray and pulling out. So it is, to use an analogy, about resolving a zombie problem.”

The success of the Australia’s new law hinges on establishing clear accountability, explains Andrew King, another co-author of the report. While it is a positive initiative to establish a legal framework for reporting emissions reductions, he adds, the current standards are insufficient.

Difficult data

Data on emissions reduction under the new law requires each of Australia’s states and territories to submit the previous year’s emissions to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. However, since 2014, just ten, or less than 10%, of those states and territories have sent the data to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. It’s a complex and costly task, says Douglas Rothwell, the government’s Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment.

Meanwhile, Australia is already well behind on its carbon emissions cut targets. Last year, according to data from the Bureau of Meteorology, the country accounted for 2.2% of global CO2 emissions. While the country’s government has its targets measured in the 5% range, the study noted, most other leading nations, such as the US, UK and China, have cut their emissions by up to 10% in recent years.

All this comes down to “very, very poor data that’s been collected, and then very limited reporting across most jurisdictions,” says Dr. Kelly Currie, another co-author of the report. “If you look at the methodology, it’s not a good process, and it requires substantial resources to compile.”

Overcoming the data gap

Dr. Joris van Den Broek of the Bureau of Meteorology estimates that releasing the CO2 emissions data “will probably only provide us with a 10-15% reduction in overall emissions.”

For Dr. Kim Lewis, the report’s lead author, this is a fundamental problem with how emissions data is currently calculated, which means that even if a country is committed to reducing its emissions, it might be able to do so by a small margin, leaving large gaps to cover.

For Dr. Celine Kerbel, from the Sustainability Institute at the University of New South Wales, this means it is “strikingly difficult” to measure whether countries like the US and UK are taking measures necessary to meet their emissions targets.

“It’s going to be very difficult to force big corporations, or any other organizations, to make drastic cuts if no hard data shows that

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