Article originally published by SCS Global Registry.
During opening remarks at the UNFCCC COP 27 talks in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt this week, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres laid down the gauntlet. He said, “In just days, our planet’s population will cross a new threshold. The 8 billionth member of our human family will be born. This milestone puts into perspective what this climate conference is all about. How will we answer when “Baby 8 Billion” is old enough to ask: “What did you do for our world – and for our planet -- when you had the chance?”
Our response to this challenge is contingent upon our understanding not only of the causes of climate change, but the range of potential solutions that can be brought to bear. As the pace of climate change accelerates, so too does our awareness of the factors driving this change. The burgeoning field of climate research, punctuated by the publication of successive consensus reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is continuously bringing new information to the fore – information we can act on, if only we can keep up.
Yet one of the ways we have not kept up is in the basic climate accounting framework used in carbon markets to assess and finance different climate change mitigation projects. The framework in use today dates back largely to the state-of-the-science in the mid-1990s. Its focus is on reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (GHGs). But with more than one trillion tons of anthropogenic carbon dioxide now in the atmosphere, and tens of billions of tons of carbon dioxide and other long-lived greenhouse gases being emitted each year, emission reductions can only slow the rate of planetary warming, and that only after several decades. So what should we do?
We can start by standing back and considering the many factors contributing to the disruption of the Earth-Atmosphere Energy Balance in light of the latest published science. Here are some examples.
We now know that methane is much more powerful relative to carbon dioxide than we previously recognized, especially when considered over shorter time horizons. It is over 80 times more potent than CO2 over a period of 20 years, and 150 times more potent than CO2 during the first year of emission. This means that mitigation projects that stop methane emissions can have a greater positive impact now and over the next few decades than previously recognized by carbon registries. In short, it’s time we value methane mitigation commensurate with its true benefit, in order to incentivize such projects.
We also recognize that short-lived climate pollutants not addressed by standard carbon registries, like black carbon and tropospheric ozone, are affecting climate. In the case of black carbon, it not only causes warming when suspended in the atmosphere, but also upon settling back to earth, whereupon it blackens surfaces and hastens the melting of ice and snow, exposing darker water or ground surfaces and creating a vicious warming loop. The good news is that there are many off-the-shelf, low-cost technologies that can mitigate such emissions, if the necessary financing can be incentivized.
Even in terms of carbon dioxide and other long-lived GHGs, traditional carbon registries account only for the emissions of a given year. But what about the emissions that accumulate in the atmosphere, year after year, following the initial year’s emission? And how do traditional carbon registries credit projects for avoided GHG emissions that would have carried over into subsequent years if they hadn’t been mitigated? The answer is, they don’t.
On the other side of the balance sheet is the issue of pollutants that shield the planet from warming. For instance, sulfur dioxide emissions can convert into sulfate aerosols, causing dangerous air pollution but also slowing down warming. Shouldn’t carbon registries keep track of the added warming that takes place when such pollutants are reduced? The answer is yes, but once again, the reality is no.
And finally, what do traditional carbon registries have to say about the corollary impacts that projects can have on the environment and human health. Are there benefits, such as reduced air pollution? Are there trade-offs, such as reduced water quality? Very little information, if any, is provided about these co-benefits and trade-offs.
In summary, it is time to update the way our registries keep track of climate projects. And it is crucial that we bring greater transparency to the entire process. Climate investors should know exactly where their dollars are going, with full accountability.
That, in a word, is why we're launching the SCS Global Registry. Every company, organization, and government jurisdiction has a vital role to play to effectively address the near-term climate crisis and contribute to a sustainable climate future. With more comprehensive information at our fingertips, it is still possible to get ahead of dangerous climate disruption and temperature rise. This is how we can answer the Secretary-General’s question.
Please contact the SCS Global Registry at www.scsglobalregistry.org.