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Filling the Post-Paris Gap - Climate TRACE

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Filling the Post-Paris Gap

Oct 07, 2021

By Lekha Sridhar


Transparency is often called the backbone of the Paris Agreement. Effective monitoring, reporting, and verification of countries’ annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and mitigation efforts are important, not only to understand whether countries are meeting their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) for emissions reductions, but also to encourage more-ambitious mitigation targets.

In the context of international climate negotiations, such transparency takes the form of national GHG inventories. Yet to date, the collection of supporting data and preparation of these inventories have been complicated and expensive. That translates into two reasons why Climate TRACE’s newly released dataset is so timely and important: 1) it offers Annex 1 countries newer, granular insight into their GHG emissions, and 2) it helps level the playing field, by giving non-Annex 1 countries access to data and emissions insights they can use going into COP26 and beyond.

A move toward emissions data equity across Annex 1 and non-Annex 1 countries

Annex 1 countries to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are required to submit detailed descriptive and numerical information about their GHG emissions and removals. But while most high-income countries have the financial and capacity resources to produce high-quality inventories annually, they often still struggle with hard-to-measure sectors like land use change and landfills.

Non-annex 1 countries, on the other hand, have less-detailed reporting requirements in light of the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities.’ This principle acknowledges that all countries have a responsibility to reduce global GHG emissions, but not all countries are equally responsible or equipped — financially or otherwise — to make large, swift emissions reductions.

Developing modern emissions inventories can be challenging to developing countries, as they often have limited resources and systems in place for data collection. In fact, India’s latest Biennial Update Report (BUR) specifically pointed to this issue:

For a large country like India, the preparation of the inventory is a considerable financial burden that requires the mobilization of significant expertise for its preparation. Further detailing of inventory requirements under the [Paris Agreement], especially in relation to the large-scale presence of the informal sector, is a new and additional burden. The reporting requirements that have come to be part of not only the global climate regime but also a number of other environmental agreements and protocols should not lead to a situation where the undertaking of real action suffers from an over-emphasis on reporting.

Overcoming traditional challenges and uncertainty in emissions intelligence gathering

Country-level inventories require two types of data sources: activity data and emissions factors. Activity data describes a quantity, such as miles driven or kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity generated. Emissions factors describe a rate per unit of activity, such as kg CO2e per kWh. Together, they are used to estimate total emissions associated with an activity.

Activity data can be particularly difficult to identify in countries that do not have a robust data repository system. Moreover, many developing countries have a large number of small and medium enterprises, which are often excluded from formal processes. Many countries do not have the capacity to install monitoring sensors and rely on self-reported estimates from industries with no mechanism to evaluate the veracity of the claims. And for sectors like agriculture, activity data can be particularly challenging as agriculture surveys are conducted only sporadically in many countries.

In addition, many countries use default emissions factors (which are easily available) rather than country- or technology-specific factors (which require scientific resources to develop). Although Tier 1 factors are easier to use, they do not capture complex sectoral, technological, or geographic factors and could lead to over- or under-estimation of emissions.

As a result, inventories often have high levels of uncertainty associated with their estimates and can take several years to prepare. At present, there are over 100 countries without an official inventory since the 2015 Paris Agreement. Even for Annex 1 countries, there is a lag time of two years for the latest inventory.

Yet, with the adoption of the Paris Agreement, from 2024 onwards, all countries will be required to use the same ‘Enhanced Transparency Framework,’ which sets higher standards of reporting, with some flexibility for developing countries. Climate TRACE, which uses the latest advances in remote sensing and artificial intelligence, is helping bridge this capacity divide between countries, and providing policymakers with a complementary source of granular, up-to-date emissions data.

Beyond monitoring and verification: making emissions inventories actionable

Despite these challenges, inventories still serve the purpose of providing high-level retrospective information on a country’s emissions trajectory, but they are insufficient for accelerating climate ambition. Due to the lag time associated with the publication of inventories, they are not actionable — to know what’s working, to course-correct, or to increase mitigation ambition. The sporadic nature of the inventories makes them insufficient for informing new policy measures.

In addition, national-level inventories are not integrated with inventories prepared at different spatial scales (such as city-level or state-level, or even company level). They are often not consistent with one another, and are therefore difficult to compare. This can make it difficult for decision-makers at all levels to set emissions-reduction targets and to benchmark their goals.

Finally, according to a 2020 report from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), although sustainability-themed funds have been rapidly growing, these funds are not reaching developing countries. Access to granular, recent data can help countries meet environmental and social governance goals, and leverage finance, particularly from the private sector.

In a post-Paris world heading into COP26 — where the collective focus is on making bigger, faster emissions reductions to battle the worsening climate crisis — timely, detailed, and trusted emissions data is more important than ever.

Lekha Sridhar is a Policy Analyst at coalition member WattTime.

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