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Beyond Glasgow, Kerry pushes to close emissions gaps

COP26 wasn’t ‘nirvana’ but White House climate negotiator works to keep alive 1.5C-degree target

China's chief negotiator Xie Zhenhua, right, walks with U.S. Presidential Envoy for Climate John F. Kerry at the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 12, 2021. (Alberto Pezzali/AP)
9 min

White House climate negotiator John F. Kerry says countries must make deeper cuts to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), forge partnerships to close polluting industries, and take measures to narrow the chasm between the greenhouse gas emissions countries are reporting to the United Nations and the amounts they are actually sending into the atmosphere.

“We have to be honest about it,” Kerry said in a wide-ranging interview with The Washington Post a month after the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland. When it comes to the 1.5 degrees Celsius target, he said “there is a gap, there will be a gap. [And] we have to be upfront about the gap, saying what has to be done in order to close it. And that is our post-COP26 work mission.”

Currently the planet has warmed a little more than 1 degree Celsius since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, though at an accelerating pace.

The Biden administration’s point man on climate said “a central component” of his talks with other key international officials since the November meeting in Glasgow has been the wide discrepancy between what nations declare their emissions to be and their actual emissions — a massive greenhouse-gas accounting quagmire.

Kerry noted that the emergence of a new breed of climate satellites and their ability to spot methane leaks is a game changer, adding: “We’re also in a position to put much greater expertise to the task of closing the gap and understanding exactly how we do that and where the responsibilities lie and how we’re defining the challenge. But it’s new territory.”

In November, The Post published a sweeping investigation of 196 country reports to the United Nations, detailing giant accounting gaps that range from at least 8.5 billion to as high as 13.3 billion tons a year of underreported emissions — big enough to alter the math on how much the Earth is on pace to warm.

Across the world, many countries underreport their emissions. Malaysia, for example, reported that its trees are absorbing carbon four times faster than similar forests in neighboring Indonesia. A consensus of outside experts put Russia’s fugitive methane emissions from its aging gas pipeline networks substantially higher — in some cases by two or three times — than what Moscow has reported.

Kerry, who drives a Tesla and nearly pulled away with its recharging device as he spoke to The Post by phone, said bringing countries into sharper view would increase “the awareness of everybody that there is a much greater accountability factor now than there ever has been.”

Asked what his biggest disappointment was in the Glasgow talks, Kerry played down the notion.

“It would have been great if every single country was able to hit a 1.5 [Celsius] plan and put it forward. Obviously that would have been, you know, nirvana,” Kerry said. It was “not in the cards though. It wasn’t realistic.”

On the positive side, he noted, “people spoke out forcefully against the subsidies for fossil fuel, which doesn’t make sense today in this era. And they also accepted dealing with the issue of trying to phase down coal consumption, which is the precursor to transitioning away from it.”

The Biden climate agenda for 2022 will start with a ministerial meeting of major economic powers on Jan. 27, Kerry said. President Biden plans to convene leaders of the group sometime in the spring to discuss further action.

World leaders band together to combat deforestation, methane emissions

The United States had already created a partnership with India, with financial backing that includes Norway, Sweden, France, Germany, Britain and the United Arab Emirates, Kerry said.

“The key is to create ready-to-go bankable deals that will deploy 450 gigawatts [of renewables] as fast as possible,” he said. He cited the $8.5 billion agreement to start closing the South African electricity utility’s coal plants in exchange for renewable projects and low-interest financing. There have been similar discussions with Indonesian and Mexican leaders about installing renewables and winding down fossil-fuel plants.

“To me, the most important thing we can do is to help accelerate the deployment that is necessary to achieve the reductions we have to achieve in the next 10 years,” he said. “That’s the priority.”

The role of China, he said, is critical. Many analysts said a U.S.-China agreement announced in Glasgow to spur near-term emissions reductions lacked concrete commitments. “I don’t think that’s an accurate reading of it,” Kerry said.

U.S. and China issue joint pledge to slow climate change

What’s important is there is a joint agreement between the world’s two largest emitters — a vow to work together this decade to slow climate change and realize a key goal of the 2015 Paris climate accord, he said, to limit warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

Kerry has been in touch with China’s chief climate negotiator, Xie Zhenhua, in recent days to discuss the creation of a working group of U.S. and Chinese experts, and said Xie is “hungry to move forward.”

While Kerry is looking ahead, climate experts are trying to figure out how to create a more complete picture of where the world is now.

Romany Webb, an associate research scholar at Columbia Law School, said “a lot of people are talking about the difference between reported emissions and real ones.”

“Everybody recognizes they’re way underestimated. If you don’t know what the baseline is, how can you verify that countries are reducing emissions below that baseline?” she asked. “And how can you fashion a policy that says what you can achieve?”

Moreover, if a country’s national climate target has inaccurate information about where its emissions are coming from, “you may end up targeting some of the wrong sources,” Webb said.

Taryn Fransen, an international climate change policy expert for the World Resources Institute, said while scientists have “pretty solid” estimates of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, some key gaps remain in global reporting and data transparency.

Those include emissions from the land sector, which are inherently uncertain and which different countries use different approaches to calculate. Less clarity also exists for greenhouse gases such as methane, a potent planet-warming gas that has been increasing sharply in atmospheric concentration in recent years.

“Those are two key gaps that still remain, and that we need to continue to refine,” Fransen said.

The Paris climate accord is designed to require nations to provide more transparency and better data about emissions over time. While developed nations regularly report a detailed inventory of their greenhouse gas pollution, some countries have filed reports with the United Nations only sporadically.

Kerry said at Glasgow there was a “big debate” about how frequently countries’ emissions plans — known as nationally determined contributions — should be reviewed.

“There were some countries that wanted to have a 10-year commitment. Other countries were fighting for five years,” he said. “It was a huge win to come out with people saying, ‘Oh, you know, the science is moving so fast and the challenge and the evidence is moving fast, so we’ve got to meet every year.’”

But for now, serious gaps in knowledge remain.

“We still are in a situation where there are major countries that haven’t reported emissions in a decade,” Fransen said. “That’s not a good situation to be in. Fortunately, that will not be the case anymore.”

Starting in 2024, every nation is expected to begin reporting emissions every two years, though countries that lack capacity or expertise can still seek more flexibility.

In Glasgow, negotiators hashed out the highly technical but important details to create “uniform” reporting requirements — essentially, ensuring that countries begin to detail their emissions in predictable and comparable ways.

“Countries were literally debating rows and columns in a spreadsheet,” Fransen said. “The more well defined and granular these rows and columns are, the more it reinforces a stronger reporting standard … and the harder it is to hide anything.”

Ultimately, she said, better data is key to slowing climate change. “We are asking countries to commit to reductions that are as ambitious as possible,” she said. “To do that in an intelligent way, you’ve got to know where your emissions are coming from, and what they are doing over time.”

Some officials who helped set up the emissions reporting rules said satellite technology could help increase transparency about what countries are putting into the atmosphere. But they said there was probably little appetite for formally including the data in the U. N. process, at least for now.

The system, which relies on countries self-reporting their greenhouse gas emissions, was never set up to get perfect information on global emissions, said Paul Watkinson, a French national and longtime climate negotiator who helped set up the Paris accord. Instead, it was to help countries set ambitious emissions goals based on their own measurements.

“On the other hand, we want the information to be credible and reliable,” Watkinson said, something that independent satellite data can help create pressure for — from civil society and journalists — if a country’s self-reported data seems wildly off base. “Local information does matter, because it’s very much linked to the policies that the countries are developing,” he said.

Those policies need time.

“Coming out of Glasgow, was it huge progress or blah, blah, blah?” asked Jason Bordoff, head of Columbia University’s center for global energy policy. “It was both.” Real points of progress were made on trading carbon credits and slashing methane emissions, he said.

But, he added, “if you had a longer runway to where we need to go, that would be encouraging.”

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