Applying ‘Trust, but verify’ to Climate Change Policy

Last year Swiss researchers demonstrated that European countries release more of the potent greenhouse gas trifluoromethane than they report. It was just the latest in a growing number of case studies showing that polluters and governments might be under-estimating their climate change impact, but it served to highlight the science and technology that can reveal such cheating. In an Earthzine article this week your editor looks at early applications and efforts to improve such emissions-tracking techniques.

Tracking emissions to their source — rather than estimating them — promises two basic benefits. The first is more timely reporting that tightens the mental link between cause and effect in climate change emissions.

For example, publicizing data that shows spiking CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion during a winter cold-snap offers a negative feedback loop to encourage conservation behavior. Estimates completed months later, in contrast, are ill-suited to encourage citizens to add an extra layer before cranking up their heaters.

Then there’s the time-honored principle of ‘Trust, but verify’ that underpins modern efforts at disarmament. Direct verification is crucial to global emissions reductions in a world where carbon credits worth billions of dollars are traded on financial exchanges, and where nations fear that emissions controls put industries at a competitive disadvantage.

Certainly China and the U.S. will never agree to mutually-binding carbon caps without assurance that their counterpart is really making good on their commitments.

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