Al Gore has one mission this week at COP27, and that’s to give climate negotiators what he hopes will be a critical tool to address the crisis at hand: an independent, global inventory of greenhouse gas emissions, down to the individual facility.
The Climate TRACE coalition just released the world’s most detailed inventory of global greenhouse gas emissions, which Gore, a founding member, is unveiling on Wednesday at the United Nations climate summit in Egypt.
“Of course, the world has long known what the overall amount of greenhouse gas pollution in the atmosphere is. What’s different about this [database] is the accurate apportioning of who’s responsible for what and the granularity that allows us a focus on specific emissions sources,” Gore told Protocol, adding that he has “no doubt” that the database “will be put to a lot of use in negotiations for sure.”
The inventory shows facility-level emissions, which will allow negotiators to home in on the most polluting sites in individual countries, helping them target where emissions reductions should come from. Putting a solar farm in one place might displace significantly more emissions than locating it somewhere else, and the inventory allows negotiators to identify exactly where they would get “the biggest bang for their buck.”
The inventory, published on Wednesday on Climate TRACE’s website and free for anyone to access, includes emissions data for 72,612 individual sources, including power plants, steel mills, and oil and gas fields. It also includes sources that can move between countries, such as cargo ships.
That granularity will be critical for countries to have an accurate accounting of their emissions and where they come from, particularly countries that don’t have the resources to gather that data themselves. It will also help corporations looking for the most cost-effective, impactful way to cut emissions, said Gavin McCormick, another founding member of the coalition.
“One of the exciting parts for us has been to move the conversation from countries arguing in some vague sense about accountability to, ‘Hey, we’re talking about these few facilities here,” McCormick said.
Using AI and satellite data, Climate TRACE was able to determine that a significant share of carbon pollution comes from a small number of facilities. The database shows that one steel mill in Korea, for example, emits more greenhouse gas pollution in a year than all of Bosnia. “The politics of how you would transition a few facilities is strikingly different than when you’re saying, ‘Who could know where it’s coming from?’” McCormick said.
Many countries lack accurate, granular, and up-to-date emissions data. That’s in part due to resource constraints, particularly in smaller or poorer countries. Egypt, for example, released a partial inventory of its 2015 emissions for the first time this year. Some of the data is self-reported by polluters, collected via surveys of key facilities and then extrapolated to create a country-level estimate. In India, “I know they’re literally out there counting cows for a few farms and then assuming these farms are representative for the whole country,” McCormick said.
Climate TRACE's data show emissions at the facility-level.Image: Climate TRACE
One key insight that came out of this inventory was that oil and gas emissions are “massively undercounted” in official estimates, he said. Through satellite data, the coalition found that oil and gas leaks were a significant source of “super-emitting” sites.
When asked if he thinks the undercounting of emissions from the oil and gas sector was deliberate or not, Gore said, “There are several specific examples that are hard to interpret in any way other than the fact that there has been an intentional effort to hide emissions and to deceive the world community about how large the emissions are. It’s just almost impossible to believe that it’s an accidental oversight, and all the accidents go in exactly the same direction.”
Gore, however, is not interested in Climate TRACE being the “climate cops.” He views the coalition as more of a “neighborhood watch,” which is often contacted by law enforcement for local information. “I will not be at all surprised if some — maybe many — governments use the information to make sure that their laws and regulations are complied with,” he said.
It’s not just governments who can benefit from the inventory release, but private companies as well.
The cleanest steel mills aren’t being used at full capacity. Yet shifting business to these mills could reduce emissions from the steel sector by 50%, McCormick said.
Companies that want to decarbonize their supply chains — which includes a number of major tech companies from Salesforce to Apple — can simply use the information to purchase products from the cleanest facilities. The coalition has already started having conversations with multinational corporations about switching suppliers, which can happen in a matter of months rather than years, if they’re armed with independent data.
By next year, Climate TRACE hopes to update the inventory to include every source of emissions and, eventually, get it closer to updating in real time. Right now, the data as a whole is at least annual up until 2021, with some sectors updated monthly.
“My belief is that if we can demonstrate to the world that it’s actually easier than they thought to make progress and we can actually track that progress, this is going to be the year that a lot of countries start tasting some serious progress,” McCormick said.