Cities are Under-Measuring GHG Emissions by an Average of 20%

Cleveland, Ohio. Image: Wikimedia Commons

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

A study published Tuesday found that American cities are undercounting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by an average of 20%. 

As almost 75% of GHG emissions come from our nation’s fast-growing cities, many of whom have pledged to drastically limit their emissions, accurate data collection is more important than ever. Experts hope that the Biden administration’s all-hands-on-deck approach to climate action can provide the systemic infrastructure that will ensure proper data collection.

Why This Matters: University of Northern Arizona professor and lead study author, Kevin R. Gurney, says that without key data about GHG emissions, cities don’t stand a chance at combating them. “We haven’t had a systematic regulatory approach to controlling greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. A crucial step toward any sort of policy has to be, ‘What are our emissions, where are they, how much are they, and what’s making them happen?” he said. 

  • While most cities were found to have underreported emissions by about 18.3%, some cities, like Cleveland, had measurements off by up to 90%.
  • Even Palo Alto, a hub of data and innovation, was found to have underreported emissions by 42%.

Inaccurate data leads to ineffective policy; without knowing how severe emissions are, cities won’t be able to craft legislation and climate action to their specific needs. 

From the Top Down: Experts assert that the best way to fix this problem of incorrect measurements is an integrated, multilevel approach. James R. Whetstone, an official with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, explained, “what will serve the nation best is if we have a consistent way to state emissions that goes from the city level to the national level.” Experts agree that cities having access to data and support from the scientific community could produce the best GHG mitigation strategies, but that may be easier said than done. 

The EPA has struggled for years to implement an effective nationwide air quality monitoring system. A recent investigation found that not only did the federal network fail miserably to accurately measure air pollution, but also large disparities in data were present between local and federal monitors. The Trump administration’s rollback of over 100 environmental regulations has also damaged the existing policy infrastructure required to implement the kind of systemic carbon tracking program cities need. 

A Full Plate: In the meantime, cities are struggling with a variety of other issues, many of them just as pressing. “Cities are struggling to pick up the garbage and fill potholes, much less keep detailed reports about their emissions,” said Gurney. Major urban centers in the U.S. are coping with the social and financial devastation caused not only by COVID-19, but by an onslaught of natural disasters like hurricanes and wildfires. The fact is, collecting carbon data is one of the last things on everyone’s mind right now, but if we don’t get it right, we won’t be able to fight back at all.


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