Wednesday, March 09, 2016

The Carbon Counters:  Tracking Emissions in a Post-Paris World

In the wake of the Paris climate agreement, developing countries find themselves in need of analysts capable of monitoring their emissions.  It’s a complex task, but organizations are stepping in with online courses to train these new green accountants.

Oilsands earth mover and emissions from stacks in Fort McMurray, Alberta, the hub of Canada's carbon-intense tar sands industry. (Photograph Credit: Paul Swanson) Click to Enlarge.
The work of these new, green accountants may not sound very sexy — calling them “accountants” conjures up the old image of bespectacled bean counters pushing oversized calculator buttons with the back of a pencil.  But this new breed of accountant is, in essence, the overseer of the planet’s new rescue mission.  They are responsible for tracking not income and expenses, but factory emissions and carbon-offset credits.  They are now doing everything from calculating the environmental footprint of international companies like Wal-Mart, to monitoring the carbon stored in the Amazon rainforest, to checking that China’s power plants are really emitting what the government says they are. 

The Paris agreement mandates that every nation make a commitment for its ‘nationally determined contributions’ of greenhouse gases.  These have a startling array of baselines and target types.  According to documents submitted before the conference, the oil-rich United Arab Emirates promises to bump up its clean energy contributions a hundredfold by 2021; South Sudan aims to plant 20 million trees; the tiny Cook Islands in the Pacific Ocean aim for an impressive 81 percent reduction in emissions by 2030.  Mozambique has made its promise in tons of carbon rather than as a percentage of emissions; Malaysia’s target is given in terms of greenhouse gas intensity.  Practically the only thing these promises have in common is a need — often a brand new need — to be able to monitor, report, and verify emissions. 

“It’s really a transformation.  It’s huge,” says Michael Gillenwater.  “Before it was basically the rich countries doing the reporting; the developing countries were doing very summary, little reports every five or six years.  Now, all countries need to be reporting full data using the most up-to-date technical analyses.” 

This is a big ask.  But the Greenhouse Gas Management Institute (GHGMI) and others are stepping up to the challenge. 
Development (USAID), for example, has contracted the Virginia-based company ICF International to train Asian governments how to sustainably reduce emissions.  Joshua Forgotson, senior technical officer for that program based out of Bangkok, says half a dozen countries have been sending representatives to training sessions for the past five years, including in-person classes based on GHGMI coursework.  Now, he says, the Paris agreement has given many of these Asian countries the incentive they need to really invest in emissions tracking.  “Lack of data is a serious issue.  Population stats, fuel consumption, crops statistics – you wouldn’t expect countries in this part of the world to have had these things in their old data collection,” says Forgotson.  It’s a new requirement.  Paris has changed things.”
Jerry Seager, chief program officer for Verified Carbon Standard, a registry for carbon credits, notes that things can get complicated.  If you have a lot of cook stoves and diesel trucks, for example, the greenhouse effect of the emitted black carbon can be hard to quantify.  “You don’t know if it’s going to fall on a glacier, for example,” he says.  And in agriculture, emissions from fertilizers can depend heavily on how waterlogged the soils are. 

But in general, Seager adds, these are small details compared to the big picture.  The challenge, he says, is not to boost the precision and accuracy of national inventories to this level of fine detail, but rather to make sure that a reasonable accounting can be done “efficiently and cost effectively.” 

Read more at The Carbon Counters:  Tracking Emissions in a Post-Paris World

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