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Carbon Emissions Tracking Methods Ridiculously Out of Date

Carbon emissions
Belachatow Power Station in Poland. Scientists say that the data used in the most recent climate talks is so outdated that conclusions are compromised. More up to date data collecting is needed immediately to track carbon emissions worldwide. Credit: Morgre /CC BY-SA 3.0

Carbon emissions tracking methods must be improved and updated, some researchers say, if we are to deal with the realities of pollution in a rational manner. Even at the most recent climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, researchers were working with information that was from as far back as 2012.

That has to stop, two young researchers declare, adding that technologies such as blockchain should be used in order to bring emissions data up to date.

During last year’s COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, government leaders agreed that they would limit global warming to 2.7 degrees by the end of this century. But that decision was made using outdated data that inexplicably had not kept up with modern scientific and data collecting methods.

Angel Hsu, an assistant professor of public policy and the environment at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is the director/founder of the Data-Driven EnviroLab. Along with Marco Schletz, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the EnviroLab, stated in an article for Scientific American that those who are attempting to rein in greenhouse gas emissions are suffering from “an information drought.”

“Outdated PDF’s” won’t cut it in setting goals for curbing carbon emissions

They believe that the information we are given regarding the mitigation of emissions from national, regional and local governments and corporations is not nearly recent enough, or comprehensive enough, to make the kinds of decisions that must be made to minimize greenhouse gases.

“We have no clear picture of who is doing what,” they state, adding “Too much is self-reported” by the actors in question at the present time.

“Without accurate, standardized and meaningful ways to measure greenhouse gas emissions, it is impossible to track and trace the progress of these various entities on their commitments,” Hsu and Schlets state.

And oddly, in this age of nonstop technological advancements in every area of human endeavor, the adoption of innovative new ways of measuring emissions has been inexplicably slow.

Their research group, in collaboration with the Open Earth Foundation, uses blockchain technology to automate data collection and even share information “in a traceable and real-time way,” Hsu and Schletz say.

They charge that the world’s current climate accounting system “can be compared to using an abacus to develop a financial ledger,” adding that global entities are still using primarily manual processes to collect data, employing spreadsheets to collate all the figures.

Some emissions reports come “from parallel universe”

The Washington Post stated in a report when COP26 was ongoing that some nations submissions used such out of date data that they constituted a “report from a parallel universe,” charging that countries were underreporting as much as 13.3 billion tons per year of emissions.

This information is based on self-reported data, compared with the emissions tracked by satellites and sensors. To extrapolate, the problem is similar to relying on self-reported positive coronavirus tests rather than testing wastewater for the actual viral load in a population.

In addition, in this day of lighting-fast satellite telecommunications and technology of every kind, there are inexplicable time lags in the reporting of carbon emissions. Hsu and Schletz charge that the most recent report from China, one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases, contains emissions from 2012.

In the decade since those emissions were created, independent groups say that China’s greenhouse gas emissions have increased by 25 percent.

But it isn’t only China that’s the problem. The European Union, ever at the forefront of Green initiatives, is using data from 2016/17 at the present time. The United States actually is the nation with the most recent data, gathered during 2019/20.

Hsu and Schletz declare that making critical climate decisions with such incredibly outdated information from major actors is “like driving a car while looking through the rearview mirror.”

They state that “path dependency,” which amounts to inertia, or the tendency to stay with technology and ways that are comfortable rather than making a change to unfamiliar methods, coupled with financial constraints, will in effect make for little change in greenhouse gas emissions globally.

A new mindset that will do away with misconceptions about groundbreaking new digital technologies, and improving technical know-how, along with speeding up the glacial pace of political processes worldwide, is needed, they maintain.

Little standardization in climate reports from 200 countries

While it is encouraging that the U.N. Climate Secretariat collects reports from almost 200 countries that have agreed to limit greenhouse gas emissions, there is little standardization regarding which emission sources are included. Indeed the very methods by which each country measures its carbon emissions can vary, making subsequent reports incomparable.

Of course, this leads to — at best — a patchwork of what greenhouse gas emissions are in reality globally.

There are digital solutions that would improve emissions reporting, the researchers state, but they are just appearing on the world scene and they must undergo real-world testing to prove that they are usable.

Meanwhile, Hsu and Schlets say that emerging digital technologies including blockchain or distributed ledger technologies (DLT), are even now proving to be essential tools in bridging the gaps in data.

They encourage the creation of a “public ledger” on which data ownership and governance is distributed using blockchain technology. With such an entity, there would be no more storage of data in just one place; a network of entities would work together to create a decentralized bloc of information.

Hsu and Schlets call the use of such technology a “game changer for climate accounting” in that it will allow the integration and automation of different types of data systems in almost real time, doing away with the ridiculous usage of decade-old data in setting future emissions goals.

The researchers also hail the creation of Climate Trace, which is an enormous group of data entrepreneurs and scientists who they say are “trying to apply AI to satellite remote sensing to compile near-real-time climate data.”

In addition, “The World Bank Climate Warehouse” is another digital platform which integrates different accounting systems in order to collate aggregate and harmonize data in almost real time, doing away with the simple manual sharing of data.

Related: US proposes protection of “Carbon sinks” at COP26

Hsu and Schlets state that these are just a few possible solutions that will enable us to make more intelligent decisions regarding greenhouse gas emissions. In this world today, we have the technology that will allow us to see a real-time snapshot of what emissions are coming from which place, and to check if measures already in place are working.

They state that they encourage all world leaders to begin making what they believe are “the important connections between digital innovation, transparency and the accountability desperately needed to drive climate ambition.”

This coming November, world leaders will gather once again, this time in Egypt, to hash out how best to continue tackling greenhouse gas emissions and live more sustainably on the Earth.

However, the researchers conclude by warning that “the radical transparency we need to deliver on the Paris Agreement goals won’t happen if the world continues to wait for outdated PDFs.”

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