How Do You Measure Hot Air?

One of the issues with the Paris Agreement is its lack of provisions for robust tracking and measurement of greenhouse gas emissions, and the lack of any meaningful audit procedure to confirm the claims put forward by participating states regarding their emissions levels. Even more fundamental, however, may be the difficulty in attributing to nations any particular stock of emissions. In this article I will explore both of these concerns, starting with the attribution problem.

Offshoring Emissions

In this regard there is a strong argument that the developed world, while claiming to reduce its own GHG emissions, is simply outsourcing them to China. Sometimes climate alarmists, in their desire to expose what they perceive to be heresies or failures to do enough, can be good friends to sceptic arguments. There is an interesting piece at the Carbon Brief website, published on 9th October 2014, under the heading “How much of China’s carbon dioxide emissions is the rest of the world responsible for?” Since then, arguably, the problem has become much more acute:

China is the world’s manufacturing hub. One reason for the increase in emissions is that China is making more and more of the stuff the rest of the world wants to buy. Emissions in places like the EU are falling – partly because it is manufacturing less, and importing more. So who should be responsible for the emissions associated with an ipod made in China and used in the UK?

The simplest way of measuring a country’s emissions is to look at how much pollution is released within its borders, called territorial emissions. It’s also possible to look at only the emissions associated with products that actually stay in China. These are termed consumption emissions, and this accounting lowers the country’s carbon footprint a bit. China emitted about 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide making products it exported elsewhere in 2012, about 16 per cent of its total. Arguably, those might be emissions the rest of the world is responsible for.

Food for thought – this issue isn’t dealt with by the Paris Accords, of course.

Greta points out the problem

More recently, on 26th April 2019, Rachel Schraer of the BBC’s Reality Check team published an article on the BBC website headed “Climate change: Is Greta Thunberg right about UK carbon emissions?”. The article highlights the UK government’s claim that UK greenhouse gas emissions had fallen by 42% since 1990, but that Greta Thunberg told UK MPs that the real figure was more like 10%. The article said she was right to point out that the UK government’s figures exclude emissions from international aviation, shipping and imports. Accordingly, Greta accused the UK government of “very creative carbon accounting“.

By contrast, the UK government statistics refer to the UK’s “territorial emissions” – that is a measure of what happens within the country’s borders, including things such as heating and powering homes, transport, domestic industry and agriculture.

The UK is not unique in producing its figures like this, though. It is sticking to internationally agreed standards. Each year, countries that are signed up to the Kyoto Protocol submit their overall emissions figures to the UN. That reporting is all done on a territorial basis – so they all exclude international aviation, shipping and imports. In fairness, Greta also criticised other countries for using the same methods.

The article went on to point out that DEFRA produces unofficial figures based on “consumption emissions” and which relate to everything the UK uses, including imports.   These figures suggest that Greta’s 10% reduction would be correct, for the period 1997 – 2016. In 2016, UK consumption emissions exceeded territorial emissions by more than 50%. Close to a further 10% is represented by international aviation and international shipping. What do we add for the emissions associated with building the ships and making the aeroplanes that are needed for international trade? Where do we stop?

The article does say that this whole area is fraught with difficulties, for example because tracking global supply chains is complex and may lead to double-counting. In one brief sentence it hit on an additional issue that has long perplexed me:

It also means countries are measuring things they do not always control – for example, if the UK imports products from China and then China starts making things in a more carbon-intensive way, the UK’s consumption emissions will go up despite consuming the same amount.”

Stop and think about that for a moment. By making UK energy expensive, by exporting jobs and manufacturing to countries like China, countries with lower environmental standards than the UK, countries which are more reliant on fossil fuels for energy production than is the UK, we might well be producing a net increase in CO2 emissions, rather than a reduction. More fool us, and more fool the people who negotiated climate agreements from Kyoto to Paris.

Who takes the rap for fossil fuel use and exports?

A related issue is the question of against which country is the use of fossil fuels to be “debited” – the producer/exporter or the end-user. The answer is the end-user, and that may be fair enough, though it does lead to strange anomalies, such as the bizarre sight of Scottish Nationalists having a net-zero CO2 agenda, while proposing to fund an independent Scottish economy on the receipts from North Sea oil and gas exports.

Online statistics I have seen suggest that Australia is far and away the world’s biggest coal exporter (responsible for around 37.5% of all coal exports), followed by Indonesia (18.2%) and Russia (13.5%) then the USA (8.3%). Four countries are therefore responsible for two thirds of the world’s coal exports, but none of that registers in their accounting for greenhouse gas emissions. As an aside, Mozambique is still a minnow, with coal exports representing 0.9% of the global total, but they’re in tenth place, and between 2015 and 2019 their coal exports increased by a staggering 36,789%.

The same issues relate to accounting for oil. The Investopedia website tells me that as of 2018 (admittedly pre-Covid) oil is the leading exported product in the world accounting for 5.9% of all global exports. Not surprisingly Saudi Arabia leads the list (responsible for 16.1% of oil export) followed by Russia (11.4%), then Iraq, Canada, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Iran, USA, Nigeria and Kazakhstan. As with gas, the accounting for this massive wealth-producer is not debited to their accounts by the global greenhouse gas accounting regime. Consequently, their NDCs make for interesting reading, but that’s one for another day.

None of the above is in the least bit helpful when it comes to validating and verifying NDCs. Unfortunately, however, the bad news doesn’t end there. There are other problems relating to dodgy reporting and lack of transparency, and these have a venerable heritage dating back to the Kyoto Protocol.

Dodgy’ greenhouse gas data threatens Paris accord

That was the heading to an article published on the BBC website on 8th August 2017.

It said:

Potent, climate-warming gases are being emitted into the atmosphere but are not being recorded in official inventories, a BBC investigation has found. Air monitors in Switzerland have detected large quantities of one gas coming from a location in Italy. However, the Italian submission to the UN records just a tiny amount of the substance being permitted. Levels of some emissions from India and China are so uncertain that experts say their records are plus or minus 100%. These flaws posed a bigger threat to the Paris climate agreement than US President Donald Trump’s intention to withdraw, researchers told BBC Radio 4’s Counting Carbon programme.

The article went on to point out that among the key provisions of the Paris climate deal, is the requirement that every country, rich or poor, has to submit an inventory of its greenhouse-gas emissions every two years. However, the problem here is one of self-accounting and a lack of audit procedures to confirm their claims.  

The example was given of Scientist Dr Stefan Reimann, who has been recording high levels of greenhouse gases over the Swiss Alps. Between 2008 and 2010, he and his colleagues recorded samples of the chemical HFC-23, produced in the refrigeration and air conditioning industries, which is 14,800 times more warming to the atmosphere than CO2, and which was coming from a location in northern Italy.

According to Dr Stefan Reimann, from the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology:

Our estimate for this location in Italy is about 60-80 tonnes of this substance being emitted every year. Then we can compare this with the Italian emission inventory, and that is quite interesting because the official inventory says below 10 tonnes or in the region of two to three tonnes. They actually say it is happening, but they don’t think it is happening as much as we see. Just to put it into perspective, this greenhouse gas is thousands of times stronger than CO2. So, that would be like an Italian town of 80,000 inhabitants not emitting any CO2.”

The Italian environment agency told the BBC its inventory was correct and complied with UN regulations and it did not accept the Swiss figures. Who to believe?

China again

The article explains that another rare warming gas, carbon tetrachloride, once popular as a refrigerant and a solvent but very damaging to the ozone layer, has been banned in Europe since 2002. But Dr Reimann told Counting Carbon:

We still see 10,000-20,000 tonnes coming out of China every year. That is something that shouldn’t be there. There is actually no Chinese inventory for these gases, as they are banned and industry shouldn’t be releasing them anymore.”

China’s approach to reporting its overall output of warming gases to the UN is also subject to constant and significant revisions. Its last submission, at the time of the article in 2017, ran to about 30 pages – the UK’s, by contrast, ran to several hundred.

Back in 2007, China simply refused to accept, in official documents, that it had become the largest emitter of CO2. According to Matt McGrath’s piece, a report in 2015 suggested one error in China’s statistics amounted to 10% of global emissions in 2013. The BBC investigation also discovered vast uncertainties in carbon emissions inventories, particularly in developing countries.

Agricultural emissions

Next the BBC article concentrated on methane, the second most abundant greenhouse gas after CO2, and which is produced by microbe activity in marshlands, in rice cultivation, from landfill, from agriculture and in the production of fossil fuels. Global levels have been rising in recent years, and scientists are unsure why.

For a country such as India, home to 15% of the world’s livestock, methane is a very important gas in their inventory – but the amount produced is subject to a high degree of uncertainty.

There are huge uncertainties over methane emissions from India and other countries. According to Dr Anita Ganesan, from the University of Bristol, who has overseen air monitoring research in the country:

What they note is that methane emissions are about 50% uncertain for categories like ruminants, so what this means is that the emissions they submit could be plus or minus 50% of what’s been submitted. For nitrous oxide, that’s 100%.”

There are similar uncertainties with methane emissions in Russia, of between 30-40%, according to scientists who work there. Says Prof Euan Nisbet, from Royal Holloway, University of London:

What we’re worried about is what the planet experiences, never mind what the statistics are. In the air, we see methane going up. The warming impact from that methane is enough to derail Paris.

The rules covering how countries report their emissions are currently being negotiated. But Prof Glen Peters, from the Centre for International Climate Research, in Oslo, said:

The core part of Paris [is] the global stock-takes which are going to happen every five years, and after the stock-takes countries are meant to raise their ambition, but if you can’t track progress sufficiently, which is the whole point of these stock-takes, you basically can’t do anything. So, without good data as a basis, Paris essentially collapses. It just becomes a talkfest without much progress.

It’s difficult to argue with that concluding sentence!

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March 28, 2021 at 06:40AM

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