Counting Carbon – The Devil is in the Detail

In a recent article in Analysis, Energy Barry Saxifrage reviewed the recent BP Statistical Review of World Energy and pulled out a series of ‘missing charts’. The most important was the total fossil fuels used over time shown below:


Disappointingly, his analysis showed that global fossil fuel consumption had increased to an all-time record of 11.4 billion tonnes oil equivalent in 2016.

There are undoubtedly a number of key drivers behind this trend including population growth, increasing expansion of the global middle class and the constant push for further economic growth.

In addition to these drivers the UK’s British Broadcasting Company (BBC) have recently highlighted a further issue which they have described as a bigger threat to the Paris climate agreement than President Trump’s withdrawal of the United States.

What they have reported on both in a podcast and accompanying article is the significant size of uncertainties and errors in carbon reporting around the world. One of the outcomes of the Paris agreement was that every company must submit an inventory of its greenhouse gas emissions every two years. However, on reviewing previously reported emissions the uncertainties are often huge – up to 100% plus or minus for some greenhouse gases. For example, methane released by cows and permafrost.

To emphasise the problem, China’s last report was changed by 10% resulting in a 3% increase in global emissions. As with many other nations, China are struggling to enact their national targets at a local level. The same issue was identified in Switzerland, where air monitoring detected 60-80 tonnes of HFC-23 being emitted from northern Italy despite only reporting 10 tonnes. This doesn’t sound like much until you find out that this gas has a global warming potential 14,800 times more than CO2.

Clearly, this level of inaccuracy between reported emissions and reality creates a higher level of uncertainty than Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and more importantly could drive an evaporation of trust. This could lead to inaction on reversing the trend demonstrated in the graph above and provide ammunition for opponents of climate change to further debate the subject rather than acting.

As someone who has been conducting and analysing carbon footprint inventories for more than 7 years, I am fully aware that it is simply not possible to be 100% on these things. Instead, we must be transparent about the uncertainties and not afraid to change reported figures when an inaccuracy or omission is identified. As environmental professionals and activists we must welcome refinements and push nations to continually improve their inventories and try not to react too negatively when issues are identified as this is part of the scientific process.

My thanks to Garry Rogers for the initial share that made me aware of Barry Saxifrage’s article.


One thought on “Counting Carbon – The Devil is in the Detail

  1. Pingback: Diversification of Governance in the 21st Century – Global Mega Trends Part 11 | The Pale Green Dot

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