More Accurate Emissions Data Needed Worldwide, U.S. Researchers Say

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A lack of trust wafted through the Copenhagen air when negotiators gathered at December's United Nations climate summit. While many developing countries offered emission reduction commitments, several delegates from industrialized nations remained unconvinced that such reductions could be proven.

To guarantee that the commitments do take place, the Copenhagen Accord [PDF] concluded that developing countries will be held to domestic measurement, reporting, and verification standards (MRV) and that submissions to the United Nations will be subject to "international consultation and analysis under clearly defined guidelines." But a new analysis finds that the guidelines may still not be enough to ensure that reported emission levels are truly accurate.

Recent technology advancements have allowed each country to estimate fossil fuel carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions more accurately, but independent data, especially for other greenhouse gases, is still unavailable for most countries-whether wealthy or poor, according to a report from the U.S. National Research Council.

In many industrialized countries, self-reported national inventories are, on average, estimated to have uncertainties of less than 5 percent for national CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use. Uncertainties for net CO2 emissions from land use change (such as deforestation) and for emissions of methane, nitrous oxide (N2O), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) often range from 25 to 100 percent.

Rapidly improving satellite technology offers tremendous potential for accurate emission measurements, especially of natural CO2 sources and sinks such as forests. The Japanese Aerospace Agency and United Nations launched the first satellite that could track greenhouse gases last year. While the crash of NASA's $278 million Orbiting Carbon Observatory satellite in February 2009 was a step back, U.S. President Barack Obama's fiscal year 2011 budget request includes $170 million for a replacement craft. Brazil and India plan to launch satellites in the next two years that will monitor their domestic emissions. Meanwhile, private companies such as Google are developing software that may also advance satellite measurements of carbon emissions.

The NRC report offers several recommendations for improving the collection, analysis, and reporting of emissions that could quickly improve verification procedures. The cost, based on an estimate of improving emission verification in 10 of the largest emitting developing countries, would be a "relatively modest" $11 million over five years.

"For any international agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions, it would be essential for each country to monitor its own emissions and to provide a transparent capability for any nation to check the values reported by another," said Princeton University ecologist Stephen Pacala, who chaired the NRC committee that produced the report, in a statement.  "This would give nations confidence that their neighbors are living up to their commitments."

Ben Block is the staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

This article originally appeared on the Worldwatch Institute blog Dateline: Copenhagen. For permission to republish this report, please contact Juli Diamond at jdiamond@worldwatch.org.