Nov 9, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Al Gore-affiliated group finds systematic emissions underreporting

Illustration of a power plant with shapes circling and pointing at the smokestacks

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A coalition of groups using satellite observations, artificial intelligence and machine learning revealed on Wednesday the most comprehensive facility-level accounting of global carbon emissions.

Why it matters: The information can be used by regulators, journalists and investors to put pressure on governments and corporations to cut their emissions.

Driving the news: In a report released at COP27 in Egypt, the Climate TRACE coalition, which counts former Vice President Al Gore as a founding financial backer and participant, unveiled its latest census of global emissions from 2021.

  • The organization can be thought of as a high-tech watchdog effort to keep tabs on planet-warming emissions from every country, industrial facility and power plant on Earth.

What they found: The coalition's data, gleaned from more than 300 satellites and available for free to the public, shows that many countries and companies have been under-reporting their emissions to the UN climate treaty organization.

  • This gives governments and scientists a false picture of how much warming is likely to occur.
  • The coalition found that half of the 50 largest emissions sources in its inventory are oil and gas production facilities and related infrastructure.
  • The data also shows that emissions are as much as three times higher than reported under a 1992 UN climate treaty among the countries required to self-report their oil and gas sector emissions.

The intrigue: The oil and gas facility emissions undercount, Gore told Axios in an interview, is suspicious after Climate TRACE saw similar underreporting trends in its 2020 inventory.

  • "It shows in some cases behavior that is hard to interpret in any other way than they were trying to conceal their emissions," Gore said of some countries.

Zoom in: Climate TRACE is a collaborative effort launched by Gore, think tank RMI, TransitionZero, WattTime and several others. It has since ballooned to more than 90 contributing organizations and seeks to bring "radical transparency and universal accountability" to emissions accounting.

  • Until now, such data was self-reported, and as the Climate TRACE coalition has discovered, along with a Washington Post investigation, this has resulted in widespread undercounting.
  • The new data includes emissions data for 72,612 individual sources worldwide, including power plants, steel mills and urban roadways, which encompass the top sources of emissions in multiple sectors.
  • Climate TRACE has now gathered an independent inventory of emissions from multiple greenhouse gases, including methane, from 2015 through 2021, according to a statement.

What they're saying: "We see ourselves more as a neighborhood watch group, with the globe being our neighborhood," Gore told Axios.

  • Gore said the group's data is being used by a half-dozen countries along with numerous companies, and more are seeking to collaborate.
  • "We want some national governments who are committed to really getting serious about emissions cuts to come away from it thinking oh, now we know where we need to prioritize our attention," he said.
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