Climate Change:

The Quality, Comparability, and Review of Emissions Inventories Vary Between Developed and Developing Nations

GAO-10-818: Published: Jul 30, 2010. Publicly Released: Aug 5, 2010.

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Nations that are Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change periodically submit inventories estimating their greenhouse gas emissions. The Convention Secretariat runs a review process to evaluate inventories from 41 "Annex I" nations, which are mostly economically developed nations. The 153 "non-Annex I" nations are generally less economically developed and have less stringent inventory reporting guidelines. The Department of State (State) represents the United States in international climate change negotiations. GAO was asked to report on (1) what is known about the comparability and quality of inventories and barriers, if any, to improvement; (2) what is known about the strengths and limits of the inventory review process; and (3) views of experts on implications for current and future international agreements to reduce emissions. GAO analyzed inventory reviews and inventories from the seven highest-emitting Annex I nations and seven of the highest emitting non-Annex I nations. GAO also selected and interviewed experts.

Recent reviews by expert teams convened by the Secretariat found that the 2009 inventories from the selected Annex I nations--Australia, Canada, Germany, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States--were generally comparable and of high quality. For selected non-Annex I nations--Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, and South Korea--GAO found most inventories were dated and of lower comparability and quality. Experts GAO interviewed said data availability, scientific uncertainties, limited incentives, and different guidelines for non-Annex I nations were barriers to improving their inventories. The lack of comparable, high quality inventories from non-Annex I nations is important because they are the largest and fastest growing source of emissions, and information about their emissions is important to efforts to address climate change. There are no inventory reviews for non-Annex I nations. Experts said the inventory review process has notable strengths for Annex I nations as well as some limitations. The review process, which aims to ensure nations have accurate information on inventories, is rigorous, involves well-qualified reviewers, and provides feedback to improve inventories, according to experts. Among the limitations experts identified is a lack of independent verification of estimates due to the limited availability of independent statistics against which to compare inventories' data. Also, GAO found that the review process's quality assurance framework does not independently assess concerns about a limited supply of reviewers and inconsistent reviews, which could pose challenges in the future. Experts said Annex I nations' inventories and the inventory review process are generally sufficient for monitoring compliance with current agreements to reduce emissions. For non-Annex I nations, however, experts said the current system may be insufficient for monitoring compliance with future agreements, which may require more reporting. As part of ongoing negotiations to develop a new climate change agreement, State has emphasized the need for better information on emissions from high-emitting non-Annex I nations. While improving the inventory system is important to negotiations, some experts said disagreements about emissions limits for developed and developing nations pose a greater challenge. GAO recommends that the Secretary of State work with other Parties to the Convention to (1) continue encouraging non-Annex I Parties to improve their inventories and (2) strengthen the inventory review process's quality assurance framework. State agreed with GAO's findings and recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Following our report and consistent with our recommendation, State department officials worked with their counterparts in international negotiations to enhance inventories from non-Annex I Parties. In 2011, at the seventeenth session of the Conference of the Parties in Durban, South Africa, Parties agreed on several issues to improve inventories. Specifically, Parties decided that non-Annex I Parties shall submit biennial inventories, adopted new guidelines for these inventories, and established a process for international consultation and analysis of submissions.

    Recommendation: Recognizing the importance of high quality and comparable data on emissions from Annex I and non-Annex I Parties to the Convention in developing and monitoring international climate change agreements, the Secretary of State should continue to work with other Parties to the Convention in international negotiations to encourage non-Annex I Parties, especially high-emitting nations, to enhance their inventories, including by reporting in a more timely, comprehensive, and comparable manner, and possibly establishing a process for reviewing their inventories.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Following our report and consistent with our recommendation, State department officials worked with their counterparts to explore various ways to strengthen the quality assurance framework for the inventory review process. This has resulted in several improvements in the review process, including new software tools for inventory review teams and, beginning in June 2012, additional training for expert reviewers on complex models and higher-tier methods. In addition, annual meetings of lead expert reviewers have addressed consistency of inventory reviews and the availability of resources and reviewers.

    Recommendation: To provide greater assurance that the review process has an adequate supply of reviewers and provides consistent reviews, the Secretary of State, as the U.S. representative to the Framework Convention, should work with other Parties to the Convention to explore strengthening the quality assurance framework for the inventory review process. A stronger framework could include, for example, having an independent reviewer periodically assess the consistency of inventory reviews and whether the Secretariat has sufficient resources and inventory reviewers to maintain its ability to perform high quality inventory reviews.

    Agency Affected: Department of State


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