INVISIBLE

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

Malaysia’s latest catalogue of its greenhouse gas emissions to the United Nations reads like a report from a parallel universe. The 285-page document suggests that Malaysia’s trees are absorbing carbon four times faster than similar forests in neighboring Indonesia.

The surprising claim has allowed the country to subtract over 243 million tons of carbon dioxide from its 2016 inventory — slashing 73 percent of emissions from its bottom line.

Across the world, many countries underreport their greenhouse gas emissions in their reports to the United Nations, a Washington Post investigation has found. An examination of 196 country reports reveals a giant gap between what nations declare their emissions to be vs. 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 a year of underreported emissions — big enough to move the needle on how much the Earth will warm.

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.

“If we don’t know the state of emissions today, we don’t know whether we’re cutting emissions meaningfully and substantially,” said Rob Jackson, a professor at Stanford University and chair of the Global Carbon Project, a collaboration of hundreds of researchers. “The atmosphere ultimately is the truth. The atmosphere is what we care about. The concentration of methane and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is what’s affecting climate.”

At the low end, the gap is larger than the yearly emissions of the United States. At the high end, it approaches the emissions of China and comprises 23 percent of humanity’s total contribution to the planet’s warming, The Post found.

As tens of thousands of people are convening in Glasgow for what may be the largest-ever meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), also known as COP26, the numbers they are using to help guide the world’s effort to curb greenhouse gases represent a flawed road map.

That means the challenge is even larger than world leaders have acknowledged.

“In the end, everything becomes a bit of a fantasy,” said Philippe Ciais, a scientist with France’s Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences who tracks emissions based on satellite data. “Because between the world of reporting and the real world of emissions, you start to have large discrepancies.”

The UNFCCC collects country reports and oversees the Paris agreement, which brought the world together to progressively reduce emissions in 2015. The U.N. agency attributed the gap that The Post identified to “the application of different reporting formats and inconsistency in the scope and timeliness of reporting (such as between developed and developing countries, or across developing countries).”

When asked if the United Nations plans on addressing the gap, spokesman Alexander Saier said in an email it is continuing its efforts to strengthen the reporting process: “However, we do acknowledge that more needs to be done, including finding ways to provide support to developing country Parties to improve their institutional and technical capacities.”

The gap comprises vast amounts of missing carbon dioxide and methane emissions as well as smaller volumes of powerful synthetic gases. It is the result of questionably drawn rules, incomplete reporting in some countries and apparently willful mistakes in others — and the fact that in some cases, humanity’s full impacts on the planet are not even required to be reported.

The Post’s analysis is based on a data set it built from emissions figures countries reported to the United Nations in a variety of formats. To overcome the problem of missing years of data, reporters used a statistical model to estimate the emissions each country would have reported in 2019, then compared that total to other scientific data sets measuring global greenhouse gases.

[Measuring the Invisible: How The Post did its global emissions analysis]

The analysis found at least 59 percent of the gap stems from how countries account for emissions from land, a unique sector in that it can both help and harm the climate. 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.

A key area of controversy is that many countries attempt to offset the emissions from burning fossil fuels by claiming that carbon is absorbed by land within their borders. U.N. rules allow countries, such as China, Russia and the United States, each to subtract more than half a billion tons of annual emissions in this manner, and in the future could allow these and other countries to continue to release significant emissions while claiming to be “net zero.”

In other words, much of the gap is driven by subtractions countries have made on their balance sheets. Many scientists say countries should only claim these greenhouse gas reductions when they take clear action, as opposed to claiming natural forest regrowth unrelated to national policies.

And some of this carbon absorption isn’t even happening — or at least not on the scale that countries assert.

Malaysia, for example, released 422 million tons of greenhouse gases in 2016, placing it among the world’s top 25 emitters that year, according to data compiled by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. But because Malaysia claims its trees are consuming vast amounts of CO2, its reported emissions to the United Nations are just 81 million tons, less than those of the small European nation of Belgium.

The Post found that methane emissions comprise a second major portion of the missing greenhouse gases in the U.N. database. Independent scientific data sets show between 57 million and 76 million tons more of human-caused methane emissions hitting the atmosphere than U.N. country reports do. That converts to between 1.6 billion and 2.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions.

Scientific research indicates that countries are undercounting methane of all kinds: in the oil and gas sector, where it leaks from pipelines and other sources; in agriculture, where it wafts upward from the burps and waste of cows and other ruminant animals; and in human waste, where landfills are a major source.

European Union officials estimate that rapid reductions in methane could trim at least 0.2 degrees Celsius from overall global temperature rise by 2050. More than 100 nations have now signed onto the newly formed Global Methane Pledge, an initiative launched by the United States and the E.U., which aims to cut emissions 30 percent by the end of the decade. But some of the world’s biggest methane emitters, including China and Russia, have yet to join the pact.

President Biden told delegates meeting in Glasgow that cutting methane emissions is essential to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

“One of the most important things we can do in this decisive decade — to keep 1.5 degrees in reach — is reduce our methane emissions as quickly as possible,” Biden said.

A new generation of sophisticated satellites that can measure greenhouse gases are now orbiting Earth, and they can detect massive methane leaks. Data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) lists Russia as the world’s top oil and gas methane emitter, but that’s not what Russia reports to the United Nations. Its official numbers fall millions of tons shy of what independent scientific analyses show, a Post investigation found. Many oil and gas producers in the Persian Gulf region, such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, also report very small levels of oil and gas methane emission that don’t line up with other scientific data sets.

“It’s hard to imagine how policymakers are going to pursue ambitious climate actions if they’re not getting the right data from national governments on how big the problem is,” said Glenn Hurowitz, chief executive of Mighty Earth, an environmental advocacy group.

[Russia allows methane leaks at planet’s peril]

Meanwhile, fluorinated gases, which are exclusively human-made, also are underreported. Known as “F-gases,” they are used in air conditioning, refrigeration and the electricity industry. But The Post found that dozens of countries don’t report these emissions at all — a major shortcoming since some of these potent greenhouse gases are a growing part of the world’s climate problem.

Vietnam, for example, reported that its emissions of fluorinated gases plunged between 2013 and 2016, to 23,000 tons of CO2 equivalent. Asked about the 2016 estimate — which is 99.8 percent lower than what’s indicated in one key scientific emissions data set used by The Post — Vietnamese officials said more recent reports assume fluorinated gases do not escape from air conditioning and refrigeration systems. But they do: U.S. supermarkets lose an average of 25 percent of their fluorinated refrigerants each year.

Many problems causing the gap in emissions statistics stem from the U.N. reporting system. Developed countries have one set of standards, while developing countries have another, with wide latitude to decide how and what and when they report. The difference in reporting reflects the reality that the developed nations are historically responsible for most of the greenhouse gases that have built up in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, and that they have greater technical capacity to analyze their emissions than poorer nations.

Even when countries do report their emissions, the U.N. data can be peppered with inaccuracies. The data set, for instance, shows that in 2010, land in the Central African Republic absorbed 1.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide, an immense and improbable amount that would effectively offset the annual emissions of Russia.

When The Post pointed out the Central African Republic’s figure to the UNFCCC, the agency acknowledged that “the reported data may require further clarification, and we will reach out to the Party for additional information and update the data in the GHG (greenhouse gases) data interface accordingly.” The Central African Republic did not respond to The Post’s requests for clarification.

“The commitments of the Paris agreement without measurements of actual atmospheric emissions are like the parties going on diets without ever having to weigh themselves,” said Ray Weiss, an atmospheric scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.

PREDICTEDUnreported emissions8.5 billion to13.3 billion tons2019 country emissions44.2 billion tonsGapChinaU.S.E.U. & BritainIndiaRussiaOthers57.453.552.71994200520102012These dots represent yearlyemissions reported by Chinato the U.N. since 1990China's lastreport from2014China2019Last report2014ChinaMalaysiaU.S.QatarIranMozambiqueBrazilIndiaRussiaGuatemalaAlgeria

A reporting system riddled with flaws and undercounting of emissions

Developed countries are historically responsible for most greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and many report their emissions every year. Developing nations are not required to report their emissions annually to the United Nations, leaving holes in the database.

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China, for example, the world’s top emitter, only submitted reports in five years, the most recent in 2014.

When we looked at the most recent year of reporting to the United Nations for all 196 countries, we found that only 45 of them, almost all developed, reported in 2019, the last available year for country reports.

Some countries with lagging data have significant carbon footprints: Iran, one of the top 10 largest emitters, has not filed an inventory since 2010; Qatar, a large natural gas producer, last revealed its emissions in 2007; and Algeria, a major oil and gas producer, in 2000.

To bring these old reports to date, The Post created a model to predict what the 148 countries that don’t have a 2019 report would have likely reported that year.

When we add the reported and predicted 2019 numbers for all countries, the total greenhouse gas emissions amount to 44.2 billion tons.

Comparing this total to independent global emissions measurements reveals a significant underreporting, ranging from 8.5 billion to 13.3 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions. This excludes more than 1 billion tons of emissions from international air travel and shipping, for which no country takes responsibility.

Note: Independent global emissions measurements come from the Global Carbon Project, Minx et al. and the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization.

At the verge of the abyss

The emissions reports are so unwieldy that the United Nations does not have a complete database to track country emissions. Some 45 countries have not reported any new greenhouse gas numbers since 2009.

Algeria, a major oil and gas producer, has not reported since 2000. War-torn Libya, another key energy exporter, doesn’t report its emissions at all. The central Asian nation of Turkmenistan, the economy of which is powered by oil and gas, hasn’t reported an inventory since 2010 — though it has been repeatedly faulted in recent years for major leaks of methane.

Australia is removing substantial carbon dioxide emissions from megafires, which have worsened due to climate change, from its annual totals. A study by Ciais and his colleagues found that the country also underreported its 2016 emissions of nitrous oxide gas, a powerful warming agent that principally comes from farming, by a factor of four to seven.

Drawing on emissions data from the Food and Agriculture Organization, The Post found a similar gap: three times as much nitrous oxide as Australia’s reports to the United Nations.

Australia’s Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources disputed the idea that it is not including wildfires’ carbon emissions, saying in a statement it uses “a smoothing process … designed to draw out trends in anthropogenic net emissions” from its forests over time.

The work of Ciais and his colleagues, the Australian department’s press office wrote in an email, “is an exploration of newly emerging modelling techniques,” and “there is considerable uncertainty about how these results should be interpreted.”

The largest of the outside inventories considered in The Post’s analysis — a research team’s estimate based on the Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research — reports up to 57.4 billion tons of annual greenhouse gas emissions. Other major scientific inventories present similar totals. Yet the most recent country U.N. reports only amount to 41.3 billion tons when land and forest claims are taken into account.

The gap does not amount to 16 billion tons, however, because many of the country reports are outdated, some of the U.N. information is incorrect and no countries take responsibility for emissions from international air travel and shipping. The Post’s analysis accounts for these problems, finding a gap between 8.5 billion and 13.3 billion tons.

Climate negotiators have known for decades that this data-gathering process is flawed, but instead they have focused on persuading global leaders to engage in serious talks and take real steps to rein in emissions.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all that you’re finding all kinds of discrepancies or that countries are playing some games there,” said Dan Reifsnyder, a former U.S. official who co-chaired negotiations for the Paris agreement. “If you want to think about strengthening the whole process, the whole climate process, this is a very, very fertile area to explore.”

While the Paris agreement calls for a more transparent system by the end of 2024, it could take until 2030 to get to robust reporting — an eternity compared with the tight time frame the world needs to get it right. The world has already warmed at least 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit) compared with preindustrial levels, leaving a very narrow path to avoid crossing the dangerous warming thresholds of 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius.

Scientists say that emissions, which are still rising, must be halved in this decade and not after, in what will have to be the biggest collective action among the world’s countries in human history. Ultimately, it’s not the politics, the accounting or the pledges that will determine how much the planet warms but the hard numbers of atmospheric science: the parts per million of greenhouse gases in the air.

In a recent interview, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said he hoped nations would recognize the implications of their actions.

“There is a growing consciousness that we are really at the verge of the abyss,” he said. “And when you are at the verge of the abyss, you need to be very careful about your next step.”

A giant gap

In early 2020, Ciais, the French emissions expert, could not access his lab at the University of Paris-Saclay, a research cluster outside the French capital. The lab sat idle while the coronavirus pandemic raged, so Ciais hunkered down at home and did what he always does: a prodigious amount of research.

That year alone, more than 100 scientific papers emerged with his name on them, many devoted to cracking some of the hardest problems in climate science: What is the world really emitting? And how much is the planet — in the form of its land, forests and soils — helping to blunt the force of the world’s pollution?

In the spring of 2020, the lockdown sent carbon dioxide emissions plummeting — along with oil prices. Ciais realized it was a unique moment to study country emissions.

Ciais started adding together U.N. emissions reports and comparing them with satellite and atmospheric measurements of forest growth, methane and nitrous oxide emissions from the world’s largest emitters.

He expected a gap and wondered what it would look like. But when he saw what instead was a chasm, he instantly realized the implication for the politics of the Paris agreement.

“It's already hard to make sense of the pledges,” he said. “If the baseline is underreported, the percentage of emission reductions that you get will be flawed.”

Ciais’s 2021 study, conducted with Zhu Deng of Tsinghua University in Beijing and 31 other researchers, is still undergoing peer review, but it, along with his data set, is publicly available.

The data uses some of the same country reports The Post analyzed, along with the Global Carbon Project’s already-published atmospheric data sets. But it only looks at individual countries, not the whole world as The Post has done. Still, it shows major gaps between how those countries report their emissions and what is actually in the atmosphere. In particular, Ciais found that some of the world’s top emitters, including both wealthy and developing countries — Russia and Indonesia, the E.U. and Brazil — are underestimating emissions of key gases.

In one of the most striking cases, Ciais’s study found that methane leakage from fossil fuel operations in the oil states of the Persian Gulf could be as much as seven times more than what they officially report.

Ciais’s research has also found that the “carbon sinks” — the land absorbing CO2 — that countries claim as a subtraction from their total emissions actually represent just a fraction of the amount that the world’s forests absorb. But, for Ciais, this finding is a mixed blessing: On the one hand, the Earth is working harder to mitigate carbon pollution than we may realize. On the other hand, droughts, wildfires and other major disturbances tied to climate change quickly can release much of this carbon again.

Greenhouse gases released by humanity’s ceaseless activity are hard to catalogue: They are invisible, and they are produced by nearly every aspect of our lives. The homes we live in, the vehicles we drive, the foods we eat, the products we buy all contribute to the atmosphere’s greenhouse gas burden either directly or indirectly.

The bulk of emissions comes from burning fossil fuels, which can be tallied with reasonable precision. But more than a third are not easily tracked, including the emissions that arise when forests are chopped down or lost to fire, peatlands are drained, or excess fertilizer is spread on agricultural fields.

It is no wonder to Ciais that the world’s leaders have a hard time accounting for the complex give-and-take of carbon and nitrogen between the Earth and its atmosphere. But the system the United Nations has established to tally these emissions makes it even harder.

A key problem is that the U.N. reporting guidelines don’t currently require any atmospheric or satellite measurements, known as a “top-down” approach. Rather, the guidelines ask scientific bookkeepers in each country to quantify levels of a particular activity. This includes the number of cows, whose burps makes up 4 percent of total greenhouse gases, the amount of fertilizer used or how much peatland was converted to cropland in a given year. Then, countries multiply those units by an “emissions factor” — an estimate of how much gas each activity produces — to determine a total for everything from belching cows to tailpipe emissions.

But those counts easily can be wrong, and so can the emissions factors. When that happens, emissions reporting becomes little more than guesswork, a case of “garbage in, garbage out.”

Basements and ballrooms

Malaysia’s skewed data vividly illustrates the high stakes countries face as they confront the growing pressure to reduce emissions while managing the very real economic consequences that process triggers.

In the past decade, some in the Southeast Asian nation have gone to great lengths to counter the scientific conclusion that its oil palm industry is releasing huge amounts of carbon. The E.U. has restricted palm-oil biofuels on the grounds that it is helping drive deforestation, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection has banned palm oil imports from two of Malaysia’s biggest producers in the past year and a half after concluding that their plantation laborers were subjected to abusive working conditions.

In 2016, the last year Malaysia has reported its numbers to the United Nations, the world’s experts on peatlands convened in Kuching, the capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak, for the 15th International Peat Congress on the vast tropical island of Borneo.

Jenny Goldstein, then a new faculty member at Cornell University, walked into the five-star Pullman Kuching Hotel and found herself in the midst of a propaganda war to make the controversial oil palm industry look good.

There were more participants from the palm oil industry than scientists at the normally staid academic conference. Industry meetings were held in a giant hotel ballroom, while the scientific presentations took place in the basement — rooms so small that some scientists had to sit on the floor.

Out of curiosity, Goldstein ventured upstairs.

“There were almost all men sitting in these ballrooms listening to presentations about how great Malaysian peatlands have been managed for oil palm,” recalled Goldstein, now a global development professor at Cornell. In the basement, world peat experts were presenting cutting-edge research on the massive carbon bombs peatlands contain.

Sarawak boasts a rich ecosystem of peat swamp forests that are home to orangutans, crocodiles and 100-foot-high ramin trees springing from the soggy earth. But across Sarawak and other regions of Malaysia, 4,000 square miles of these forests — close to the size of Connecticut — have been drained in recent decades. Much of this land is sown with plantations for palm oil, commonly used in products ranging from biofuels to processed foods, soaps and makeup.

When peatland is drained, it releases a rapid pulse of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as the once-waterlogged plants’ remains degrade with the sudden exposure to air. Emissions then continue for decades, until all the peat is gone.

The conference was a historic occasion, held in the tropics for the first time in its 62-year history, and hosted by the Malaysian Peat Society with the Sarawak government’s support.

The leader of the conference, Sarawak Tropical Peat Research Institute Director Lulie Melling, has asserted that oil palm developers can plant on peatland without releasing huge amounts of carbon. She holds a PhD in environmental science from Japan’s Hokkaido University.

Melling said in an interview with The Post that other peat scientists, who have studied peat in other parts of the world, don’t understand the unique qualities of the peat in her region.

“It’s like comparing cheesecake with Swiss cheese,” she said.

She has often cast the scientific debate in nationalist or anti-colonialist terms. Earlier this year, she told the New Sarawak Tribune, an English-language newspaper, that the Tropical Peat Research Institute was at the “front line on behalf of the state to inform the public that agriculture practices on peatlands have minimal impact on their roles as carbon sources.”

“I single handedly, backed by my small laboratory, pioneered and published the groundbreaking research work on peat use and [greenhouse gas] emission to rebut the maligned western detractors on the use of peat as arable land,” she said.

Melling’s pro-industry stance took scientists at the conference by surprise, Goldstein said, as did her use of vulgar language in public remarks.

Melling has said she uses suggestive language to make her science memorable.

“I first dabbled with humour to get my point across in 2007, when I organised a soil science seminar entitled, Big hole, small hole & KY Jelly,” she said in an April 2016 interview with TTG Associations, an Asian Pacific trade group.

In the wake of the conference, some scientists were stunned to read in news reports that the event had presented new evidence that palm oil development can proceed without major environmental disruption. “Malaysia challenges the world over palm oil peatland,” said the English-language Jakarta Post.

In response, 139 scientists — including Goldstein — objected to the articles, noting an abundance of peer-reviewed studies on peatland emissions. The letter was published by scientific journal Global Change Biology.

“The oil palm industry is basically an arm of the government,” Goldstein said.

A biting heat

Nicholas Mujah Ason has seen both the cause and the effect of global warming: the sea of oil palm plantations surrounding him and the rainforest that never cools.

Mujah, who has lived in the state of Sarawak most of his life, has been fighting the development since the early 1980s, when he was first jailed for protesting the encroachment of loggers.

“It's not that we hate palm oil,” he said. “We hate how palm oil has been planted into our land.”

His family has lived deep in the rainforest for eight generations, and the 62-year-old has been involved in multiple legal actions as the secretary general of the Sarawak Dayak Iban Association, an Indigenous rights group.

More recently, Mujah’s home village has been plagued by flash floods because peatland that once absorbed the rains has been drained. It’s now hard to say when the summer begins because it’s hot year-round — and the heat stings.

“It’s not like a normal heat that we faced before,” he said. “You’ll feel the biting heat, and your skin will be burned.”

Malaysia’s government has downplayed the palm oil industry’s climate impact across several categories in its U.N. reports.

In 2016, Malaysia claimed that it had not converted a single acre to cropland.

“This is patently untrue,” said Susan Page, an expert on peatlands at the University of Leicester who also signed the letter objecting to presentations at the 2016 International Peat Congress.

In fact, in a peer-reviewed study funded by the Malaysian government itself, scientists documented the expansion of an oil palm plantation atop carbon-rich peatland in Sarawak in the very same year as Malaysia’s latest report. The study estimated that 138 tons of carbon dioxide were released per hectare — a unit equivalent to 2.47 acres — in converted areas. In other words, a giant pulse of emissions occurred due to land conversion. At The Post’s request, the geospatial intelligence firm Esri measured the total expansion at 494 acres.

Malaysia reported that not a single acre of land had been converted to cropland in 2016.
 
This satellite image shows an existing oil palm plantation in the Sebauh district of Sarawak, Malaysia, on May 28, 2015.

(Planet Labs)

In a study funded by the Malaysian government, scientists documented the expansion of a palm plantation in 2016, shown here.

(Planet Labs)

By 2021, satellite images show additional forest clearance.

(Planet Labs)

Malaysia reported that not a single acre of land had been converted to cropland in 2016. This satellite image shows an existing oil palm plantation in the Sebauh district of Sarawak, Malaysia, on May 28, 2015.

(Planet Labs)

In a study funded by the Malaysian government, scientists documented the expansion of a palm plantation in 2016, shown here.

(Planet Labs)

By 2021, satellite images show additional forest clearance.

(Planet Labs)

It was happening all across the country that year. Drawing on a satellite-based data set from Ciais and his colleagues, including Wei Li of Tsinghua University in China, Esri found a net addition of about 410,000 acres of oil palm plantations in 2016, though it is unclear how many of these were on peatland.

The scientific evidence suggests the country is also underestimating emissions from drained peatland, which occur in the years after the land is converted. Using an outdated estimate of how much peatlands emit, the nation calculated that its croplands atop drained peat emitted just 29 million tons of CO2 in 2016.

John Couwenberg, a peatlands expert from the University of Greifswald in Germany, said Malaysia’s estimate is “way too low.” He reworked the numbers for The Post and got a total of 111 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions. A 2017 study agreed, finding a figure of nearly 100 million tons of carbon dioxide per year for all of Malaysia. In other words, Malaysia’s peatland emissions could easily be about three times as high as the country is claiming.

And then comes the biggest problem of all.

Malaysia claims an annual forest carbon sink of over 243 million tons from just about 68,000 square miles of forested area. That‘s not far from what neighboring Indonesia claims for a forest more than five times its size.

U.N. technical reviewers have questioned what they called Malaysia’s “unusually large figure” for forest carbon storage and said they were unable to reproduce it despite using three separate methods. Several scientists told The Post that the figures would only make sense if all of Malaysia’s forests were growing at a rate similar to that seen in young saplings — which they aren’t.

“It sounds like there is an error because it is completely impossible to think of the entire area of forests across Malaysia accumulating the equivalent of young tropical forests,” said Jérôme Chave, a research director at the French National Centre for Scientific Research who has published data on carbon storage in Malaysian forests.

The Malaysian government said its reports comply with U.N. guidelines and are subject to rigorous review but did not respond to detailed questions about the country’s land sector reporting.

“The information including the one that you are asking were all subjected to an intense review processes (it took us 7 months) conducted by the UNFCCC experts themselves who are members from all over the world,” said Mohamad Firdaus Nawawi, an official with the country’s Ministry of Environment and Water, which prepares the documents, by email.

“When you walk over peatlands, your feet sink down into thousands of years of carbon,” said Hurowitz, the Mighty Earth chief executive. “Sarawak has sent its peatland destruction advocates to scientific, government and corporate events for years to present a wildly distorted picture of destroying these ultrarich carbon ecosystems.”

Under the Paris agreement, Malaysia has pledged to reduce the carbon intensity of its economy 45 percent below what it was in 2005 by the end of the decade. Thus far, the country claims the forestry sector is making the biggest contribution to its emissions cuts — which underscores just how problematic the country’s numbers truly are.

“It’s not surprising to me that governments are trying to hide pollution,” Hurowitz said, “but it’s shameful they’re getting away with it.”

Tolerating disarray

Jackson, the Stanford professor, is driven by a sense that data can save the planet from peril. He chairs the Global Carbon Project, the world’s most ambitious scientific effort to gather data that explains the global carbon cycle — how the planet absorbs and releases carbon dioxide. Scientists analyze the same kind of data that countries are supposed to report to the United Nations, but they bring skepticism and a tool that the world body doesn’t apply: direct measurements of gases in the atmosphere.

Jackson believes that the atmosphere is the ultimate check on what countries report — and what they pledge. The gap in the data is an urgent problem.

Earlier this year, the United Nations published a “synthesis report,” which forecasts the effect of countries’ climate promises on future emissions and the planet’s temperature.

The report describes those promises as “covering” the vast majority of global emissions, showing numbers more than 10 billion tons above what countries actually report when all sectors are included, according to The Post’s calculations. The United Nations declined to provide its data set to support the number, but did explain a number of steps by which countries numbers’ had been adjusted.

“It is surprising to see that the authors of the U.N. report did not use the original data reported by each country,” said Ciais, who also contributes to the Global Carbon Project.

Saier, the UNFCCC spokesman, defended the approach in an email, saying that “there is indeed a small upscaling.”

In a sense, the UNFCCC adjusted the country numbers to match what science says is being emitted: It closed the gap that The Post found.

From a political perspective, there may not be any other option. Without requiring satellite or atmospheric measurements, richer and poorer countries alike are likely to underreport for years to come.

After all, in the end there is no way to make the Paris agreement, emissions cuts or accurate emissions reports mandatory. Every country reports what it reports and promises what it promises.

“I think that’s part of the reason this is all tolerated, is the sense that, at least the countries are providing something and participating and thinking about it,” said Jackson.

“That’s why people tolerate this disarray, because the alternative is for them to walk away.”

But Jackson is an optimist.

“I believe information is powerful. Data and information have not nudged the climate world as quickly as I wished it had,” he said. “But I’m still naively hoping to leave the world better for my kids than I found it.”

Brady Dennis, Nick Trombola, Taylor Telford and Caroline Cliona Boyle contributed to this report.

About this story

Read how The Post did its global emissions analysis.

Project editing by Trish Wilson. Data editing by Meghan Hoyer. Graphics editing by Monica Ulmanu. Graphics by Naema Ahmed. Photo editing and project management by Olivier Laurent. Photography by Helynn Ospina, Heather Ainsworth and Cyril Zannettacci/Agence VU. Design editing by Matthew Callahan. Design and development by Garland Potts. Copy editing by Anastasia Marks.

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Chris Mooney is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter covering climate change, energy, and the environment. He has reported from the 2015 Paris climate negotiations, the Northwest Passage, and the Greenland ice sheet, among other locations, and has written four books about science, politics and climate change.
Juliet Eilperin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at The Washington Post, editing stories on climate and the environment. She has written two books, "Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks" and "Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship is Poisoning the House of Representatives."
Desmond Butler is an investigative reporter on The Washington Post's climate and environment team. He previously reported for the Associated Press in Washington, Istanbul and New York. His work has spotlighted unscrupulous military contractors, disinformation campaigns and nuclear smuggling. He also served as AP's chief correspondent in Turkey.
John Muyskens is a graphics editor at the Washington Post specializing in data reporting.
Anu Narayanswamy is the data reporter for the national political enterprise and accountability team at The Washington Post, with a focus on money and politics.
Naema Ahmed is a graphics reporter at The Washington Post. Before joining The Post, she worked at Axios as a data visualization designer.