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This Al Gore-backed project found that we’re seriously undercounting greenhouse gas emissions

Most emissions data is self-reported by polluters and years out of date. Climate Trace calculations show that sectors like oil, gas, and steel could be emitting billions of tons more emissions than we thought.

This Al Gore-backed project found that we’re seriously undercounting greenhouse gas emissions
[Images: urfinguss/iStock]
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To tackle climate change, the world needs to know exactly where greenhouse gas emissions are coming from. But most of the data that exists today relies on self-reported numbers from polluters, and it’s often years out of date. A new platform uses satellites, sensors, and AI to directly measure emissions independently—and it’s finding that some sectors are seriously undercounting the problem.

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“There’s an old saying that you can only manage what you can measure,” says former vice president Al Gore, who is collaborating with other partners on the new platform, called Climate Trace. “When the measurements are flawed and out of date and have big gaps and are just plain wrong, in many instances, it’s hard to manage what you’re mis-measuring.” The coalition just released its own data for 10 sectors and 38 subsectors between 2015 and 2020.

In countries with large oil and gas industries, the platform showed that emissions from producing and refining those fossil fuels over the last five years were likely a billion tons higher than previously thought—double the numbers in recent reports. In other countries that haven’t been required to regularly report on their oil and gas sector emissions, an additional billion tons of emissions has likely gone uncounted. The misalignment between reporting and reality is particularly bad in the U.S. and Russia.

[Image: Climate Trace]
Little data existed previously about the steel industry, but the Climate Trace platform found that steel production was responsible for around 13 billion tons of CO2-equivalent emissions between 2015 and 2020 (as much, the coalition says, as all of the emissions in the U.K. and Japan put together). While steel emissions dropped in 2020 because of the pandemic in most of the world, they rose steeply in China.

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Shipping and aviation emissions totaled 11 billion tons over the 2015-2020 period. Right now, countries don’t have to include emissions from either sector in their commitments under the Paris agreement. Emissions from forest fires also grew; though Brazil has gotten attention for devastating wildfires in the Amazon, the emissions from wildfires in the U.S. and Russia were even larger.

[Image: Climate Trace]
By gathering more complete, accurate, and timely data, the platform makes it easier to tackle the problems. “There are 100 countries that don’t have any inventory fresher than five years ago . . . . We have the difficulties of trying to manage numbers that are five years old,” Gore says. “You wouldn’t do it in business, you wouldn’t do it in your household budget. And in the most important task the world is facing, we have been relying out of necessity on numbers that are not fit for purpose.”

The new data can help global leaders plan at the upcoming climate conference in November. It can also help countries push big polluters to make changes more quickly. Investors can use the platform as they try to lower the carbon footprint of their portfolios. Over time, the platform will include even more detail, and will update more quickly, publishing new data weekly or even daily in some sectors.

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“We’re now entering a period of radical transparency,” Gore says. “And we will see progressively more transparency as this data becomes more granular.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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