Get Ready for Big Political Fights Over Carbon Accounting

Cecilia Nysing

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We’ve learned a number of new terms over the course of the pandemic: R number, variants, herd immunity, mRNA and so on. These concepts are often foreign and complicated, but they help both policymakers and the person on the street make sense of the crisis. When faced with an existential challenge, we all learned a little bit of scientific jargon.

Explore dynamic updates of the earth’s key data points

That’s something we’ll have to do as we tackle climate change, too. Consider the claim Prime Minister Scott Morrison made in April that Australia had reduced its emissions by 19% in 2019 compared with 2005 levels. It was an attempt to burnish his country’s coal-stained image at a climate summit convened by U.S. President Joe Biden.

Turns out, it was a neat accounting trick. “Australia has made minimal progress towards net zero and its emissions trends are among the worst in the developed world,” a new study from the Australia Institute concluded. It found that the reduction claim is only possible if you include the land-use sector, which involves forests, agriculture and other related emissions. Without it, Australia’s emissions from fossil-fuel use and industry increased by 6% in 2018, relative to 2005.

Cherry Picking

Accounting method determines Australia’s emissions story

Source: UNFCCC

“In a net-zero world, we know that the elephant in the room for most countries is fossil fuels,” said Pep Canadell, chief research scientist at CSIRO’s climate science center. “You cannot leave cutting emissions from the energy sector to the last minute. It’s a multitrillion-dollar problem that you change over decades.”

It’s not that emissions from land use don’t matter. The most recent analysis from Global Carbon Project shows that, globally, the sector added 6.5 billion tons of emissions in 2019. That’s nearly one-fifth the emissions from fossil-fuel use in that year.

“But it’s important to distinguish, because we have huge uncertainties in emissions from land use,” said Canadell. Unlike accounting for the burning of fossil fuels, emissions from agriculture and forests are hard to measure, and often these measurements rely on methods that grant emissions reduction based on avoiding a hypothetical polluting activity.

These accounting methods aren’t just a matter of government one-upmanship. These land-use emissions are going to be crucial to the upcoming negotiations at COP26 in Glasgow in November. Countries will have to find a way to agree on rules surrounding Article 6 of the Paris Agreement that will create a new carbon market to help public and private entities to trade offsets. The goal of the market is to reduce emissions, but without clear accounting and strict regulations there’s a big risk of greenwashing.

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