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The Fraught Politics of Measurement: Greenhouse Gas Accounting and Climate Governance


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) national greenhouse gas (GHG) inventory accounting rules play a significant role in constituting the global climate regime’s character and contribute to the disappointing progress made in international negotiations. Despite the prominence of climate change in global governance, the political and policy implications of inventory rules have not been subject to sufficient analysis. Production-based inventory accounting rules simultaneously deflect attention from the consumption patterns that drive global GHG emissions trends and accentuate tensions within the climate regime between differentiated national emissions targets and market-based environmental policy measures, thereby contributing to the prevailing deadlock in climate negotiations. The result is inefficient domestic mitigation policies, weak international agreements and continued political neglect of consumerism as a driver of emissions. The IPCC’s production-based accounting methodology also shapes the way in which scholars and reformers approach the problem of climate change. We illustrate our argument through comparison of production- and consumption-based accounting and argue that recording emissions in a way that emphasizes consumption might help to bridge the differences between developed and developing states, particularly China and the United States. By examining the climate regime's failure to address the consumption patterns that are the drivers of emissions growth, this seminar highlights factors that are impeding effective global governance of consumption. Consumption based accounting is particularly appealing from the perspective of global justice, because by shifting attention from production to consumption it highlights inequalities among people, rather than international economic competition. This might build political support for action on climate change based upon the cosmopolitan idea of equal entitlements and obligations for people everywhere, ceteris paribus.


Prof. Harris is currently Chair Professor of Global and Environmental Studies and Head of the Department of Social Sciences. He is also Director of the Social and Policy Research Unit and CGC Senior Research Fellow, HKIEd. Dr. Symons is the Post-Doctoral Fellow of Department of Social Sciences, HKIEd.