Effective action on climate change is a matter of global urgency, and yet even during the COP26 talks in Glasgow new evidence shows that nations continue to hide their contributions to greenhouse gas emissions. Until the transparency problem is resolved, the goal of averting a global catastrophe will remain far out of reach.
Last Sunday, a team of Washington Post reporters headed by the Pulitzer Prize-winning climate and environment reporter Chris Mooney released the findings of their investigation into greenhouse gas reporting by 196 nations.
The team found reports that read like missives “from a parallel universe,” citing Malaysia as just one example of a widespread transparency problem. According to their research, Malaysia appears to be claiming that its forests absorb carbon four times faster than similar ones in neighboring Indonesia.
Overall, the team found emissions reporting gaps ranging from 8.5 billion tons to as much as 13.3 billion tons.
To put that in perspective, the Post team explains that 8.5 billion tons would be as if another big emitter, the size of the U.S., suddenly added its numbers to the global carbon load.
At 13.3 billion tons, the gap represents the equivalent of emissions by China, or almost 25 percent of the world’s total.
That gap is no mere numbers game. By under-reporting emissions, nations give themselves more room to continue slow-walking effective climate action.
“The plan to save the world from the worst of climate change is built on data. But the data the world is relying on is inaccurate,” the Post team writes.
As described by the Post team, there are a range of issues underlying the lack of transparency, from willful mistakes to incomplete reporting, along with shortcomings and loopholes in the reporting rules.
One thing does appear clear, though. Many of the shortcomings in emissions reporting does not involve automobiles, buildings, or industries, at least not directly. Rather, land use is the main area in which reality appears to diverge from the reported data.
According to the Post, Malaysia is not alone in its apparent over-calculation of carbon absorption by its forests. Many other nations appear to be playing with the numbers as well.
“The analysis found at least 59 percent of the gap stems from how countries account for emissions from land…Land can draw in carbon as plants grow and soils store it away — or it can all go back up into the atmosphere as forests are logged or burn and as peat-rich bogs are drained and start to emit enormous surges of carbon dioxide,” the Post team writes.
All in all, the Post report is a clear warning signal to manufacturers that are seeking to lower their carbon footprint by relying on a bio-based supply chain.
The use of forests and peat lands for fuel is not the only issue. Manufacturers are beginning to lean on bio-based supply chains to reduce their dependence on fossil resources, but that brings up the issue of habitat destruction for agricultural use, and manufacturers will have to account for the impact of their supply chains on biodiversity.
On the bright side, the report provides recycling stakeholders with more ammunition to promote the use of recycled materials over bio-based resources.
That would have been a moot issue just a few years ago, when recycled materials typically underperformed products made from virgin sources.
Part of the challenge involves structural deficiencies in recycled materials. Another area of concern is the presence of inks and other contaminants.
The picture is changing now, and new opportunities to use recycled materials are emerging. In recent years, for example, the Canadian paper recycler Sustana has invested in R&D leading to the development of high performance recycled paper. The product is the first recycled-content paper to achieve FDA approval for coming into direct contact with foods, which opens up a ride range of new uses.
Synthetic recycled products have also begun to achieve next-level performance standards. In past years, the standard approach to recycling plastic bottles and other containers has been to down-cycle them for carpeting and other fibers. Now next-generation technology is enabling recyclers to break plastic into chemical building blocks that can reassembled into new high performance products, including new bottles.
Greater use of recycled materials is just one sustainability option to emerge for manufacturers. In the coming years, manufacturers that prefer the bio-based approach may be able to source natural materials from factories, not farmland.
The company FabricNano, for example, has developed a process that mimics plant cells to “grow” a new biodegradable material. The process does require sugar inputs, but FabricNano plans to source that from waste, including the world’s ample supply of the waste byproduct glycerine.
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Many manufacturers are also beginning to leverage consumer awareness to cut down on packaging.
In an interesting twist, the e-commerce trend could help promote the use of more simple, basic packaging rather than the eye-catching packages needed to attract in-store shoppers.
Reusable dispensers and other forms of reusable packaging are beginning to appear in the mainstream market, and interest in zero waste shopping is beginning to grow. The zero-waste company Loop, a project of TerraCycle, provides a good example of the potential for the zero-waste movement to scale up.
Loop has already engaged with top grocery store brands, and earlier this month the familiar household name of Tupperware announced a pilot project with Loop to provide reusable packaging for the popular Tim Hortons chain.
All else being equal, the growth in recycling and reusing activity could provide legacy oil and gas companies with new pathways for investing in new technology, transitioning out of a business model reliant on extractives and shifting attention to waste management and next-generation manufacturing.
Unfortunately, if renewable energy is any indication, oil and gas companies are stubbornly sticking with their generations-old business model of funneling what had been ancient, sequestered carbon into the global economy.
Earlier this week, PolitiFact underscored the slow pace of change, by taking a look at the amount of low-carbon spending undertaken by Shell, BP, ExxonMobil and Chevron.
Despite copious amounts of spending on publicity for low carbon products, PolitiFact noted that only BP was forthcoming about its investments at last month’s hearing in Congress. PolitiFact pieced together data from other sources to compare the four companies.
“BP’s investments in low-carbon energy are about 20 percent compared to what it spends on oil and gas,” PolitiFact wrote, adding that “low-carbon investments are rising, but in relative terms, Shell spends less than BP, and Chevron and ExxonMobil spend significantly less.”
PolitiFact also noted that these numbers are even less impressive than they appear, since they include a range of activities unrelated to renewable energy. For example, carbon capture and reducing methane from drilling sites are typically included in “low-carbon” investments.
For all the progress at COP26, effective climate action will remain elusive until both nations and industry stakeholders come clean on their contributions to greenhouse gas emissions, and take swift, effective action to reduce them.
Image credit: Arvind Vallabh via Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.