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National Greenhouse Gas Inventories Can Help Countries Curb Climate Change

At WRI, we like to say that “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.” For managing and mitigating climate change, one of the most fundamental measurements is a periodic inventory of the problem’s root cause: greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from human activities.

GHG emissions inventories are carried out at several levels, including corporate, city, and state. Measuring emissions for entire nations has its unique challenges, but it’s a critical first step for any country that wants to effectively manage its contribution to global climate change. National GHG inventories provide a baseline of data and, if regularly updated, a tracking mechanism for assessing how domestic policies impact emissions. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) recently released its 17th annual inventory of greenhouse gas emissions for the United States. Although this report provides lots of new data points, there were no real surprises at an aggregate level. After reporting declines in total GHG emissions for 2008 and 2009, largely due to the economic downturn and resulting deceases in total energy use, GHG emissions in 2010 were approximately 6.8 billion metric tons of CO2-equivalent–an increase of 3.2 percent from 2009. The U.S. EPA attributed this growth to “an increase in economic output resulting in an increase in energy consumption across all sectors, and much warmer summer conditions resulting in an increase in electricity demand for air conditioning that was generated primarily by combusting coal and natural gas.”

GHG Inventories in a Changing Emissions Landscape

As an “Annex I” party to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the United States is one of 41 countries obligated to submit a national GHG inventory annually. Many of these countries have spent more than a decade developing the necessary institutional arrangements, procedures, and related capacities to ensure that these inventories are robust and authoritative, following the best practice guidance outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

However, since regular reporting by Annex I parties began, the global emissions dynamic has shifted dramatically. More than 50 percent of global GHG emissions are now estimated to be from developing (or non-Annex I) countries. Because these countries are not obligated to submit annual national inventory reports under the UNFCCC, these types of global GHG assessments are typically only available through “unofficial” (i.e., non-governmental) sources, such as WRI’s Climate Analysis Indicators Tool (CAIT). This project compiles data sets from the International Energy Agency, Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, U.S. EPA, and other sources to produce comparable greenhouse gas and economic sector emissions estimates for nearly 200 countries.

As we enter “the critical decade” for putting carbon-reduction schemes in place, national GHG inventories from the governments of major developing (and developed) economies will be an essential tool for helping the international community assess current GHG levels and prevent the worst outcomes of climate change. In recognition of this critical information void, the recently adopted Durban Platform of the UNFCCC decided that “non-Annex I Parties, consistent with their capabilities and the level of support provided for reporting, should submit their first biennial update report by December 2014.” These reports will include national GHG inventory updates.

Perhaps more importantly, GHG inventories produced by developing countries can inform domestic actions for low-carbon development. In fact, many developing nations have already made or are working towards achieving significant enhancements to their national GHG reporting systems.

Developing these national inventory systems can have co-benefits, too. For one, they can strengthen a country’s overall measurement abilities because the same processes can be applied to other dimensions of GHG mitigation or low-carbon development goals. For example, if a country develops a system that provides good data on energy consumption for its national GHG inventory, this information might also be used to help manage renewable energy deployment or track sector-specific energy efficiency goals.

Building Capacity for GHG Inventory Systems

To support the development of sustainable national GHG inventory systems, WRI is working with in-country partners through the Measurement and Performance Tracking (MAPT) initiative. Having completed an assessment of national GHG inventory systems in MAPT’s focus countries (Brazil, Colombia, Ethiopia, India, South Africa, and Thailand), we are now undertaking several capacity-building activities, including developing a suite of case studies to inform inventory practitioners and the international community. Specifically, MAPT is interested in understanding the institutional, human resource, financial, and technological capacities needed for national GHG inventory systems. We hope these country-specific case studies will facilitate GHG inventory system improvements throughout the world.

We know from WRI’s research that national GHG inventory systems will vary from country to country due to domestic capacities and priorities. There is no “one-size-fits-all” plan when it comes to GHG inventories. Therefore, it’s important to come back to the underlying reason why all countries should develop a national GHG inventory in the first place: to support the mitigation of GHG emissions. Just like you can’t manage what you can’t measure, we need to better manage what we do measure.

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