By Chris Lang
Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, governments are required to report their greenhouse gas emissions to the UN.
The Washington Post published an article this week that takes a deep dive into the greenhouse gas emissions that governments report having emitted compared to the greenhouse gas emissions measured in the atmosphere. The Washington Post journalists found that “many countries underreport their greenhouse gas emissions in their reports to the United Nations”.
There is a gap of somewhere between 8.5 billion to 13.3 billion tons a year between what governments say they are emitting and what they are actually emitting.
The UNFCCC told the Washington Post that the gap was the result of “the application of different reporting formats and inconsistency in the scope and timeliness of reporting (such as between developed and developing countries, or across developing countries).”
Alexander Saier, Communications Officer at the UNFCCC, acknowledged that more needs to be done, “including finding ways to provide support to developing country Parties to improve their institutional and technical capacities.”
The figures exclude emissions from international aviation and shipping, because, as the Washington Post’s journalists note, “no countries take responsibility for emissions from international air travel and shipping”. Also excluded are military greenhouse gas emissions.
China’s most recent report is dated 2014. Algeria has not reported since 2000. Libya doesn’t report its emissions at all. Turkmenistan hasn’t reported since 2010. Australia doesn’t report emissions from the massive wildfires that are getting worse as the climate crisis intensifies.
Forests and land account for 60% of the gap
Almost 60% of the gap between reported and actual emissions comes from how countries account for emissions from forests and land.
This really should not be a surprise. As REDD-Monitor points out on the “REDD: An Introduction” page, one of the serious problems with REDD is the fact that “accurately measuring the amount of carbon stored in forests and forest soils is extremely complex – and prone to large errors”.
The Washington Post’s journalists show just how large these errors can be. In 2010, the Central African Republic reported that its forest and land had absorbed 1.8 billion tons of CO2. That’s about the same as the total annual emissions from Russia.
When the Washington Post’s journalists asked the UNFCCC about this figure, the UNFCCC replied that, “the reported data may require further clarification, and we will reach out to the Party for additional information and update the data in the GHG (greenhouse gases) data interface accordingly.”
The government of the Central African Republic did not reply to the journalists’ requests for clarification.
Malaysia is using forests to report from a parallel universe
The Washington Post article highlights Malaysia’s reporting of how much carbon its forests absorb. Here’s how the journalists describe Malaysia’s Third Biennial Update Report, which was submitted to the UNFCCC in December 2020:
Malaysia’s latest catalogue of its greenhouse gas emissions to the United Nations reads like a report from a parallel universe. The 285-page document suggests that Malaysia’s trees are absorbing carbon four times faster than similar forests in neighboring Indonesia.
The surprising claim has allowed the country to subtract over 243 million tons of carbon dioxide from its 2016 inventory — slashing 73 percent of emissions from its bottom line.
Malaysia claims that in 2016 its forests covered an area of 17.6 million hectares and absorbed 243 million tons of CO2. That’s not far off the 294 million tons that Indonesia claimed were absorbed by its forests in 2016. But Indonesia’s forests (according to the government’s report to the UNFCCC) covered an area of 95 million hectares – more than five times the area of Malaysia’s forests.
In 2016, the Washington Post reports, Malaysia released 422 million tons of greenhouse gas putting the country in the world’s top 25 climate polluters. But Malaysia reported just 81 million tons emissions to the UN, claiming that its trees absorbed the difference.
The reality is that Malaysia’s forests have been devastated, by logging operations, including illegal logging. Malaysia’s timber industry, particularly in Sarawak, involves huge levels of corruption. Large areas of logged over forest have been replaced by oil palm monocultures, with much of this on drained peatland.
Malaysia’s report to the UNFCCC claims that in 2016 no forest land was converted to agricultural crops such as oil palm. But a study funded by the Malaysian government documented the expansion of an oil palm plantation in Sarawak in 2016:
Malaysia calculated its emissions from croplands on drained peat at just 29 million tons in 2016. But the Washington Post refers to a 2017 study that came up with a figure of 100 million tons – more than three times the figure that Malaysia reported to the UNFCCC.
Mohamad Firdaus Nawawi, at the country’s Ministry of Environment and Water, told the Washington Post that Malaysia’s reports to the UN are subject to “intense review processes” and comply with UN guidelines. So, er, that’s alright, then.