Climate reporting: problems and discrepancies

All Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change shall periodically publish national inventories of anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of all greenhouse gases. However, some countries' climate reports are questionable. Comparison of these reports to independent scientific data shows that greenhouse gas emissions are significantly underestimated, while their absorption is overestimated.

In accordance with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), all its Parties shall develop, periodically update, publish and make available to the Conference of the Parties national inventories of anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of all greenhouse gases not controlled by the Montreal Protocol. In Russia, such inventory is prepared annually by Roshydromet. Correct accounting of greenhouse gas emissions and removals is an important part of mitigating climate change.

However, some countries' climate reports are questionable. The Washington Post wrote in a November 7 article that the reporting system that underpins global climate commitments is rife with flaws and underestimations. The newspaper's analysis of reports from 196 countries reveals a significant gap between the amount of greenhouse gases reportedly emitted into the atmosphere or absorbed and what independent scientific studies show. Differences in measurement methods, underassessment and uncertainties in emissions from the land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) sector are the main factors causing the underestimations of emissions in the reports.

Comparison of countries’ reports submitted to the UNFCCC secretariat with independent scientific data shows that greenhouse gas emissions are significantly underestimated, by 8.5-13.3 billion tons of CO2-equivalent per year. The lower of these values is higher than the annual emissions of the United States of America. The upper value approaches China's emissions and accounts for 23 percent of the total human contribution to global warming. An example of misstatement is Malaysia's latest report. It assumes that every tree in this country absorbs four times more carbon than in neighboring Indonesia.

The analysis shows that about two-thirds of the discrepancies are related to accounting for greenhouse gas emissions and removals in the LULUCF sector. Carbon can be absorbed as plants grow, accumulated in the soil, or it can be released into the atmosphere when deforestation or burning of forests and drainage of peat-rich swamps takes place, with huge releases of carbon dioxide.

Many countries try to account for the absorption of greenhouse gases as offsets, arguing that carbon is absorbed in natural systems. The methodology allows countries such as China, Russia and the United States to deduct more than half a billion tons of annual emissions in this way, and in the future may allow these and other countries to continue to emit significant amounts of greenhouse gases, while considering themselves being "net-zero".

However, such carbon sequestration is happening at least not on the scale that some countries claim. For example, according to the UN FAO data, Malaysia emitted 422 million tons of greenhouse gases in 2016, making it one of the 25 largest emitters in the world. But the country claims that its trees consume huge amounts of CO2 and that its net emissions are only 81 million tonnes, less than in Belgium.

Alexey Grigoryev, head of the RSEU Campaign on Forests and Biodiversity, believes that "reliability and relevance of information on emissions and absorption of greenhouse gases is critically important for ensuring effective international action to address the problem of global climate change." In his opinion, “Russia, as one of the parties to the Convention, actively drawing attention to the need of fully accounting the absorbing capacity of forest ecosystems, should become an example in this area. However, we see attempts of incomprehensible reassessments of previously announced indicators, the lack of reliable and up-to-date data on the state of Russian forests, large (sometimes by several times) discrepancies between the official statistics on the areas of wildfires and the results of satellite imagery. We hope that after COP26, the state forest authorities in Russia, together with stakeholders, including environmental organisations, will take measures to provide open, relevant, reliable, verifiable and understandable information about the state of Russian forests and the processes taking place in them."


Eliminating greenhouse gas emissions completely is not the same as carbon net zero. Net zero means that anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases can continue, but are offset by their absorption by natural ecosystems.


The compensatory ability of ecosystems cannot be measured at all, and it is still difficult to calculate. For example, a forest is a complex system in which not only the activity of trees shall be taken into account , but also soil respiration (the release and absorption of gases by numerous microorganisms in the soil), etc. There are also examples of gross errors in calculations of absorption while implementing compensatory projects. For these and many other reasons, Friends of the Earth International is in favour of effectively ending greenhouse gas emissions and opposing the use of net zero approach to justify burning fossil fuels.

The underestimation of methane emissions is the second big problem in countries’ reports. Independent scientific data show that the actual anthropogenic emissions of methane into the atmosphere are by 57-76 million tons more than reported. In carbon dioxide equivalent, this amounts to 1.6 to 2.1 billion tons of emissions. The analysis shows that countries underestimate methane emissions in all sectors: in extraction and transportation of fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal); in agriculture, especially due to the peculiarities of cattle digestion; and in the waste sector, primarily from landfills.

Плантация масличной пальмы вытесняет девственный тропический лес на Борнео (Малайзия)
Фото: Edward Burtynsky, The Anthropocene Project

According to the data of International Energy Agency, Russia and the United States are the world's largest emitters of methane from fossil fuel extraction, but they report much lower numbers. Many oil and gas producers in the Gulf region, such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, also report very low methane emissions from oil and gas production. Some scientific evidence suggests that methane leaks from fossil fuel operations in the Gulf oil states could be seven times more than they report.

RSEU Co-Chairman Andrey Laletin notes that “it is also important to pay attention to the release of large amounts of methane due to melting of permafrost in Russia, Canada and the United States (Alaska), especially after forest and tundra fires, as well as when peat bogs are burning. These processes are constantly accelerating and will accelerate in the coming years. But these numbers are not included in the countries' reports on greenhouse gas emissions.”

Another reason for the ever-increasing greenhouse effect on Earth is emissions of fluorinated gases (F-gases). They are used in air conditioning, refrigeration and power generation. Their emissions are small, but most of them have a global warming potential thousands of times higher than carbon dioxide. Dozens of countries do not report these emissions at all, which is a serious problem.

Vietnam, for example, reported that its fluorinated gas emissions fell to 23,000 tonnes of CO2e between 2013 and 2016. Vietnam's 2016 fluorinated gas emissions estimate is 99.8% lower than one of the key scientific emissions data. Obviously, recent Vietnamese reports suggest that almost no fluorinated gases escape from air conditioning and refrigeration systems. But this is not the case. For example, supermarkets in the United States lose an average of 25 percent of F-refrigerants each year.

Inaccuracies in country reports can be very significant. For example, the 2010 Central African Republic report states that the country's natural systems have absorbed 1.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide, a huge and incredible amount that could offset Russia's annual greenhouse gas emissions.

Emission reports of some countries are missing or incomplete. About 45 countries have not reported since 2009. Algeria, a major oil and gas producer, has not reported since 2000. War-torn Libya, another key energy exporter, does not report its emissions at all. Turkmenistan, whose economy is based on oil and gas, has not published its emission inventories since 2010, although in recent years it has been repeatedly accused of large methane leaks.

Australia in its reports ignored significant carbon dioxide emissions from colossal wildfires that have been exacerbated by climate change. Scientific research shows that this country also underestimated in 2016 its emissions of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas mainly emitted from agriculture, by four to seven times.

Scientists agree that (still growing) greenhouse gas emissions shall be halved this decade, and no later. Neither exploiting the legal loopholes in the Paris Agreement, accounting gimmicks for calculating greenhouse gas emissions and removals, nor broken promises and reporting tricks will save the Earth from the catastrophic global warming. This can only be done by the actual and rapid cessation of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere of our planet.


Author: A. Fedorov
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