6 takeaways from our investigation into greenhouse gas emissions

An oil palm mill in Simunjan, Sarawak, Malaysia, in September 2021. Trucks carrying freshly harvested palm oil fruits line up to sell directly to mills such as this one. (For The Washington Post)
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For more than a year, The Washington Post examined greenhouse gas emissions to assess the most impactful ways to lower emissions urgently. If the world remains on its current track, scientists say, global average temperatures are projected to soar past the thresholds leaders vowed not to cross as part of the 2015 Paris climate accord. The message is clear: The world must lower emissions now if we are to avoid those extreme temperatures.

Our series, Invisible, identified ways to make a difference by stopping methane, nitrous oxide and other greenhouse gases headed into the atmosphere through leaks and poor practices. Here’s what we found:

1

Countries’ climate pledges to the United Nations are built on flawed data

Around the world, many countries underreport their greenhouse gas emissions to the United Nations. An examination of 196 country reports revealed a giant gap between what nations declare their emissions to be and the greenhouse gases they are sending into the atmosphere. The gap ranges from at least 8.5 billion to as high as 13.3 billion tons of underreported emissions a year — big enough to move the needle on how much the Earth will warm.

Countries’ climate pledges built on flawed data, Post investigation finds

2

Russia is releasing dangerous methane emissions that are warming the world

For decades, countries and companies have misrepresented or merely miscounted how much methane has been escaping into the atmosphere. A new generation of satellites devoted to locating and measuring greenhouse gases is orbiting Earth, with more on the way. These sentinels in the sky are ushering in an era of data transparency, helping to close the gap between the amount of methane that scientists know is in the atmosphere and what is reported from the ground.

Russia dramatically underreports its methane emissions. For an enormous area covering much of Russia’s largest oil and gas region, experts estimated 7.6 million tons of methane emissions per year — and for the entire country, 8.3 million tons. That’s more than twice as high as Russia’s latest reported figure.

Russia allows methane leaks at planet’s peril

3

Congo boasts the world’s largest tropical peatland — and if developed, it would set off a massive carbon bomb

Industrializing countries — from Europe and the United States in past centuries to southeast Asia in the 21st — drained vast areas of peatlands, drying them and releasing immense wafts of carbon dioxide as well as smaller quantities of nitrous oxide, another potent greenhouse gas. The mass conversion of peatland into farmland over the centuries is estimated to have released as much as 250 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The Democratic Republic of Congo wants what the rest of the world got from its peatlands: an economic development boost. But if Congo were to drain its pristine peatlands, it is near certain that hundreds of millions or even billions of tons of carbon dioxide would be emitted into the atmosphere.

The race to defuse Congo’s carbon bomb

4

In Mexico, excessive fertilizer use is fueling climate change

Emerging scientific evidence suggests that Mexico’s emissions of nitrous oxide are significantly underestimated — emissions may be double or even quadruple what the country reports. In the Yaqui Valley, a storied breadbasket of Mexico, scientists found that when water mixes with nitrogen fertilizer — and when no crop is in the ground to absorb it — huge surges of nitrous oxide gas are released into the atmosphere.

As a contributor to climate change, nitrous oxide remains a mysterious villain, crudely measured and less-studied than carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. But it has caused 6.5 percent of the world’s current warming, and its concentration in the atmosphere is growing at an accelerating rate, surpassing even some of the worst projections. The gas is 265 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, depletes the planet’s ozone layer and lingers in the air for more than a century.

Mexico’s wheat fields help feed the world. They’re also releasing a dangerous greenhouse gas.

5

Alaska’s old-growth trees contain enormous amounts of carbon but are prey to politics and big business

Alaska’s Tongass National Forest holds the equivalent of 9.9 billion tons of CO2 — nearly twice what the United States emits from burning fossil fuels each year. Planet-warming emissions are trapped in the trees throughout this archipelago, including a 500-year-old Sitka spruce.

The miraculous process that sustains life on Earth is embedded within its vast trunk. The spruce draws in carbon dioxide through the tiny holes in its leaves, known as stomata, and water through its roots. The sunlight it absorbs fuels a reaction that splits the water and carbon dioxide into glucose, which traps the carbon, and releases oxygen into the atmosphere. But the trees’ fortunes are bound in the political fight over logging and climate change in the nation’s capital.

This tree has stood here for 500 years. Will it be sold for $17,500?

6

Canada’s megafires are so uncontrollable the country stopped counting them in its pledges to reduce emissions

To hit the goals of the 2015 Paris agreement, humans must rely on the natural world to absorb much of the carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels. The world’s land soaks up massive amounts of carbon dioxide each year, but also releases some back into the atmosphere as fires rage, trees are razed and peatlands are destroyed.

The Paris climate accord allows countries to claim large subtractions from their global emissions totals thanks to what is absorbed in their growing forests and land. Canada is not counting emissions from many megafires toward its U.N. pledge, because the fires are “natural” and “beyond human control” — a move some other countries have adopted. But these greenhouse gas emissions are still warming the atmosphere, and no country wants to claim them.

A megafire raged for 3 months. No one’s on the hook for its emissions.

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