CLIMATE CHANGE: Negotiators Told to Update Their Science

Posted on 10 December 2009 by editor

By Claudia Ciobanu

COPENHAGEN (IPS/TerraViva) – Estimates for greenhouse gas (GhG) emissions being used by the UNFCCC and negotiators during the COP15 are too low, argue scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO), the body responsible for the first historical calculations of carbon emissions.

“It is not a matter of bad will, it’s that science has moved on considerably since Kyoto,” Tony Haymet, the director of the SIO, told TerraViva.

The scientists are at Copenhagen to let the decision-makers know that better estimates can now be made. They stress that precise measurements of emissions are crucial if regulatory legislation and carbon taxes or cap-and-trade schemes are to succeed.

“At the moment, the situation of the negotiators is comparable to that of people who go on a diet without first weighing themselves,” commented geochemistry researcher Ray Weiss, who is working on measurements of industrial gas emissions for SIO.

Weiss explained that estimates used by UNFCCC for industrial gases such as carbon tetrafluoride (CF4), nitrogen trifluoride (NF3) or sulphur hexafluoride (SH6 considered the most potent GhG by the IPCC) are lower than real emissions. In the case of NF3 for instance, the real emissions can be as much as four times higher than the UNFCCC figures.  

Even more, in some cases (such as that of CF4), UNFCCC numbers show that the trend of emissions is decreasing while real numbers show that emissions have been rising over the past few years.

The reasons for these errors, explained the scientists, are that UNFCCC data relies on bottom-up reports (provided by different regional monitoring centres around the world), which by themselves are not reliable enough.

“It is possible that some people may want to underreport emissions, especially if they are given financial incentives to do so,” said Ray Weiss, “or that measurements are tuned to meet standards before inspections”.

For such reasons, the scientists argued that it is very important to combine bottom-up reporting of emissions with top-down reporting, which is being developed at the moment.

Top-down methods which are developed by people like Weiss involve high-frequency measurements coupled with modelling of atmospheric transport. The scientists from SIO added that an important role in better estimates can be played by spatial measurements of GhG, as experimented with in the United States for CO2 and in Japan for methane.

All of these methods must be combined in order to get correct estimates. But the good news from Weiss and Haymet is that such precise measurements are now possible.
To provide a clear incentive for using better measurements, the scientists stressed that precise calculations can play an important role in stabilising the volatile carbon-equivalent trading market, now worth 100 billion dollars.

“If we have the precise numbers for how much emissions are being produced or saved, it will act like a certification seal, leading to increased investor confidence,” Haymet told TerraViva.

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