By John Wihbey

As more than 130 nations gather today in New York to begin formally signing the Paris climate change agreement, the quest to limit greenhouse gas emissions and prevent catastrophic global warming enters an altogether new era of challenge: collecting accurate data on an unprecedented scale, to make sure countries live up to their national commitments. And though little has been said to date about the process, it is certain to become one of this century’s foremost global data challenges, fraught with technological and political difficulties.

The agreement will go into effect shortly after 55 countries — comprising at least 55 percent of annual global emissions — ratify it domestically (the signing today is just the beginning of that process). At that point, the race to achieve global transparency and full accountability will be on. While some countries, including the United States, already have a robust greenhouse gas inventory, many of the major developing nations, such as India, don’t have a rich regulatory history in this area. For these countries, building the capacity to measure emissions will be crucial. The Paris Agreement allows for some flexibility as it relates to countries’ current capacity — India, for example, will need to build capacities like those of the U.S.

The rules of engagement around transparency will be substantially different than, for example, those for an arms or nuclear treaty. Individual nations will report on their own progress, the agreement states, in a “facilitative, non-intrusive, non-punitive manner, respectful of national sovereignty.” There will be a kind of multilateral “peer review” (a chance to kick the tires just slightly) of reported data. But the nations’ stated reductions goals — called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions — are not legally binding, and the agreement’s definition of “compliance” was left somewhat vague.

So there will be no inspectors sent by the United Nations, no process in place for performing independent verification, no threats of sanctions. Instead, there’s just good faith. Through air monitoring facilities, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, we will continue to know with precision the overall levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But the challenge will be to find who, exactly, is really pushing up those levels, and to what degree.

Getting “clean” data and better pinpointing responsibility will be crucial to changing behavior and ultimately mitigating climate change. Accounting standards — and catching any double-counting as nations look to transfer reductions credits through markets — were a focus of the Paris Agreement. Even if there are no draconian penalties, all countries will look to avoid potential international shaming.

“At the end of the day, there’s the political pressure that only can come if countries know who is living up to their promises,” says Peter Ogden, a senior advisor and fellow at the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute and a former Obama White House and Department of State aide on climate issues. “The pressure to fulfill your commitments is greater the more countries you have credibly demonstrating that they are doing their part.”

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Areas of Focus: Climate Change
Climate Change
Climate change is an urgent global challenge. EPIC research is helping to assess its impacts, quantify its costs, and identify an efficient set of policies to reduce emissions and adapt...
Climate Law & Policy
Climate Law & Policy
As countries around the world implement policies to confront climate change, EPIC research is calculating which policies will have the most impact for the least cost.