Greenhouse Gas Reporting: Can We Trust the Figures?

An independent Swiss monitoring group has cast doubt on official greenhouse gas emission figures from at least two major nations - Italy and China. If true, this could be a major stumbling block for realistic global emission control in coming years. By Jeremy Torr.

SINGAPORE, 10 August 2017. A recent report by the BBC’s Counting Carbon team investigated a report published by the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (FLMST) as far back as 2011. According to the report, the FLMST detected significant emissions of  hydrofluorocarbon-23 (HFC-23) from Italy, and carbon tetrachloride – a supposedly banned substance – from China.

Dr Stefan Reimann, from the FLMST told Counting Carbon that " .. our estimate is about 60-80 tonnes of [HFC-23] being emitted every year" from Italy. “When we compare this with the [official] Italian emission inventory, it says below 10 tonnes or in the region of 2-3 tonnes.”

Reimann also noted that the FLMST Jungfraujoch monitoring station, situated high up in the Swiss Alps, had detected some 10,000-20,000 tonnes of carbon tetrachloride being released into the atmosphere from Chinese sources. “That is something that shouldn't be there. There is actually no Chinese [officially reported] inventory for these gases, as they are banned and industry shouldn't be releasing them anymore."

Both gases detected by the Swiss scientists have a much more powerful greenhouse effect than CO2 – in the case of HFC-23, some thousands of times more destructive.

 FLMST Jungfraujoch monitoring station in the Swiss Alps had detected some 10,000-20,000 tonnes of carbon tetrachloride being released into the atmosphere from Chinese sources. Photo by FLMST.

FLMST Jungfraujoch monitoring station in the Swiss Alps had detected some 10,000-20,000 tonnes of carbon tetrachloride being released into the atmosphere from Chinese sources. Photo by FLMST.

Fiddling the Figures

With such significant reporting errors being fed into the UN’s Climate Change Accord monitoring system, the question must be asked if this is a serious problem. The answer is a resounding yes; the BBC report noted that some commentators asserted emission figures from India and China could even be out by up to 100%. That would make a mockery of both reduction efforts and potential targets for ongoing reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Today’s official figures for the amount of gases produced by any of the 195 signatory countries (soon to exclude the US) to the UN’s Climate Accord are calculated by calculating how many car journeys are made or how much energy is used heating homes and commercial premises. Although an estimate, this is supposed to be as accurate as possible and is submitted to the UN every two years.

The errors are not all one way, however; a 2015 report published in Nature claimed that China had been using old data sets to calculate its CO2 emissions from coal and cement burning, mainly within industrial power plants, which had given inflated values for gas tonnages. The collaborative China-US report showed that newer power stations in China were burning low-emission coal and using better systems that resulted in a 10% reduction from the officially reported figures of CO2.

“We find that … emission factors for Chinese coal are on average 40% lower than the default values recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC),” noted the report produced by a mix of researchers from Harvard and Tsinghua University among others. It also noted that emissions from China’s cement production are 45% less than recent estimates.

“Altogether, our revised estimate of China’s CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and cement production is 2.49 gigatonnes of carbon (2 standard deviations = ±7.3 per cent) in 2013, which is 14% lower than the emissions reported by other prominent inventories,” it noted.

A lot of hot air

It is not just the industrial gases that are giving cause for concern over reporting accuracy. Naturally produced greenhouse gases like methane are also on the rise – yet accounting for them is nowhere near as accurate as it needs to be, say many scientists.

Methane is the second most abundant greenhouse gas after CO2; its quantities in the atmosphere are being piled up not just by the increase in beef cattle, fish farming and oil & gas burn offs, but by warming and melting of high altitude peat bogs and tundra geographies – a significant yet relatively un-researched contributor in higher latitudes. Nitrous oxide, another byproduct of farming and fertiliser use, is rated as the third most aggressive greenhouse gas, accounting for 6% of the warming – and has similar fuzzy statistic reporting.

 Dr. Anita Ganesan

Dr. Anita Ganesan

Dr Anita Ganesan, Independent Research Fellow at the University of Bristol, UK said that her group is “working towards understanding the effects of agriculture on … methane and nitrous oxide emissions, particularly for South Asia's emissions of these gases from rice paddies and fertilizers.” Dr Ganesan noted that although there are some regions where there are large potential agricultural greenhouse gas sources, “.. we may not have the measurement coverage to assess emissions using atmospheric measurements."

 Rice paddies and fertilisers account for methane and nitrous oxide emissions, particularly for South Asia's emissions of these gases - Dr. Anita Ganesan. Photo by Jeremy Torr.

Rice paddies and fertilisers account for methane and nitrous oxide emissions, particularly for South Asia's emissions of these gases - Dr. Anita Ganesan. Photo by Jeremy Torr.

Some analysts claim that in countries like India and Brazil, with a large animal feedstock populations, current methane level reporting is so vague as to be up to 50% inaccurate, and also subject to “a high degree of uncertainty.” And in countries like Russia, with huge tracts of both forest, permafrost and tundra, it has been estimated that submissions could see up to 30-40% errors in reporting for methane emissions.

 Glen Peters

Glen Peters

“The core part of [the Paris Climate Change Agreement] is the global stock-takes which are going to happen every five years,” said Glen Peters, Senior Researcher at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo. Peters noted that the national and global reporting of greenhouse gases was designed to raise levels of conformance, but only works if the reporting is accurate.

“If you can't track progress sufficiently, which is the whole point of these stock-takes, you basically can't do anything,” added Peters, speaking to the BBC. “Without good data as a basis, Paris essentially collapses. It just becomes a talkfest without much progress."