Data Transparency: New Dynamic at COP-21 in Paris

From the Paris Climate Negotiations

The international climate agreement reached at the recent 21st Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP-21) could be largely attributed to the relationship between just two nations: the U.S. and China. Productive bilateral negotiations between Xi Jinping and Barack Obama, beginning in late 2014, produced a landmark accord that broke a climate suicide pact between the two behemoths. In November 2014, China and the U.S. announced their core climate pledges a year ahead of Paris, a move that invited other countries to announce their pledges as well. In subsequent bilateral meetings President Xi Jinping announced a national emissions trading scheme and subnational leaders from both countries announced the U.S.-China Climate Leaders’ Declaration—a partnership of 29 cities, states and provinces in the U.S. and China that pledge to adopt emissions reduction targets beyond their respective countries’ national pledges, among other critical goals.

It seemed these cooperative threads might unravel in COP-21’s first week. Among a variety of divergent opening positions on various issues, Chinese negotiators took hardline positions on the pledge-and-review process and emissions data transparency requirements. In the end, an agreement was reached on these issues, including regular reporting of information necessary to track progress.

This debate around transparency and review traces back to the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks, when the key point of contention between the U.S. and China centered on three words: measurement, reporting and verification (MRV). The U.S. insisted that China allow international monitoring of its carbon emissions while China initially balked at what its leaders deemed infringement on national sovereignty. China broke the stalemate, agreeing to a less stringent form of MRV—reports and emissions inventories would be conducted with “international consultation and analysis.”

Carbon emissions data has historically been a sensitive issue for China. Reports in 2007 suggested that China’s carbon emissions were the highest in the world, yet the nation’s government did not officially recognize its status as the top global emitter until three years later, prior to the December 2010 climate negotiations in Cancun.

China has officially produced only two national inventories of greenhouse gas emissions for its National Communications to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Secretariat—in 2004 and in November 2012. The first greenhouse gas (GHG) inventory referred to China’s 1994 emissions and was limited to just three gases (carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide); the Second Communication included data for six greenhouse gases, yet reported no information beyond 2005. Apart from the two national communications, China’s leadership has reported no other greenhouse gas emissions data to the UNFCCC.

COP-21 provided key insights into China’s evolving view on emissions MRV as national leaders committed to continue building monitoring systems and implementing verification protocols, including third-party verification, particularly for its seven regional pilot emissions trading schemes (ETS) and planned national program. In COP-21’s second week, the Chinese delegation hosted a “China MRV System” side event that brought together academics, government officials and policy experts to discuss China’s capacity to monitor and verify carbon emissions.

Ge Hongmei, Deputy Director of China’s Certification and Accreditation Administration, described China’s plans to implement three MRV systems for greenhouse gases: voluntary GHG markets, enterprise GHG reporting, and the seven emissions trading pilots launched in 2011 (see Ranping Song’s blog: In Paris, China Announces Promising Elements of National Emissions Trading System). Businesses, including those under the management of the centralized Energy Management Information System (EMIS)—around 1,400 enterprises according to Ge–-have already been subject to MRV mechanisms through EMIS, and the government plans to expand this system to cover China’s largest 10,000 firms.

MRV for China’s seven ETS pilots and the national scheme is undergoing rapid development. Duan Maoshung, a professor at Tsinghua University, said at the Dec. 8 China MRV event that there are no comprehensive guidelines for the pilots–-each is developing its own rules. For example, Shanghai, which based its system on those of the EU and California, requires companies to report emissions annually and to use third-party verification. But a lack of detailed and harmonized MRV standards could significantly reduce the efficiency of a national ETS, not to mention limit its ability to link with markets in other countries. Continuous Emissions Monitoring (CEMS), which China has used to monitor water and air pollution in much of the country, will not be used for the regional or national ETS. Instead, a set of common monitoring and reporting guidelines will be required, with provincial ETS authorities implementing and ensuring plans are followed.

These details give definition to China’s planned MRV systems and China is working on such steps as its 12th Five-Year Plan commitment to create a greenhouse gas statistical monitoring system and its 2009 Copenhagen pledge to produce a national inventory every two years. China is already collecting a vast amount of energy and pollution data from major emitting sectors, including the power sector, responsible for 32 percent of China’s carbon emissions in 2012. In 2010 the MEP reported that 7,988 state-controlled enterprises had installed CEMs, although some studies have found more than 10,000 CEMs that measure emissions from air and other parameters at power plants throughout the country.1 These figures demonstrate that China has the infrastructural foundation to collect necessary data to estimate GHG emissions. Clear protocols, transparent procedures, and implementation are needed to ensure that China can deliver on MRV. China has already issued technical guidelines for standardized carbon emissions reporting in many of the most emissions-intensive sectors of its economy.

The Paris Agreement and decision together mention “transparency” 30 times. Language is often open to interpretation, yet the Agreement’s mandate is clear: each country is to regularly provide standardized national GHG emissions inventories and “information necessary to track progress made in implementing and achieving its nationally determined contribution” (Article 13). This provision, part of an agreement signed by all Parties including the U.S. and China, marks a step forward toward gaining clarity on what the world is doing to address climate change.


1.Zhu, F., H. Li, and S. Qiu, (2010). Development and application prospects of gas continuous emission monitoring systems. Environmental Monitoring Management and Technology 22(4):10–14. In Chinese.


Author Information:
Angel Hsu, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at Yale-NUS College and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Kaiyang Xu and Andrew Moffat are both completing Masters of Environmental Management degrees at Yale. The authors thank Michael Davidson, PhD candidate at MIT, for research contribution to this piece.

Photo Credit:
Dr. Angel Hsu