Should I use the new IPCC GHG Inventory Guidelines?

September 18, 2020, by Michael Gillenwater

Yes, you should use the new IPCC guidelines, with an awkward caveat. Technically speaking, there is every reason anyone engaged in estimating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or removals—from corporate, to facility, to project, to national scales — should use this updated guidance. Fully published late last year, it is the product of five years of rigorous scientific work by 280 experts from 47 countries (yours truly included).

As you hopefully know, the guidelines from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), although created for national GHG inventory preparation, are the foundational reference for all GHG measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) work. All modern-day GHG programs, methods, and policies have their roots in the IPCC Guidelines—including project methods from VCS, corporate reporting using the GHG Protocol, carbon-neutral claims, or Paris Agreement Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) commitments.

Now for the caveat. To my displeasure, these new IPCC guidelines are going to be difficult for you to use. The reason relates to some complicated international diplomatic factors. The end result is that it is not politically acceptable to replace the previous guidelines (2006 IPCC Guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories). Instead, this new guidance is in the format of an elaborate corrigenda or amendment. And because the international climate negotiations feed on ever shifting terminology (its easier to agree on a new term because the previous language has too much baggage), the latest guidelines descriptor is “refinement” (having previously cycled through “revised” and “good practice”). As a practical matter, for some sections you will use this new 2019 Refinement, but there are many sections that the IPCC did not update, so you must still refer to the previous 2006 Guidelines (see Figure). You will need to have both documents open at the same time and frequently jump back and forth between them.

Type of refinement Explanation
Update Use the section in the 2019 Refinement instead of the corresponding section in the 2006 Guidelines.
New guidance Recognizing that there is no guidance in the 2006 Guidelines, use the section in the 2019 Refinement.
No refinement Use the corresponding section in the 2006 Guidelines, because no refinement has been made in that section.
Removed For a few cases where sections were removed because they were no longer relevant.
“The 2019 Refinement does not revise the 2006 IPCC Guidelines, but updates, supplements and/or elaborates the 2006 IPCC Guidelines where gaps or out-of-date science have been identified. It does not replace the 2006 IPCC Guidelines, but should be used in conjunction with the 2006 IPCC Guidelines and, where indicated, with the 2013 Supplement to the 2006 IPCC Guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories: Wetlands (Wetlands Supplement).”

In sum, the ridiculous official title says it all: 2019 Refinement to the 2006 IPCC Guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories. Here is the full description:

What was already a huge 5-volume reference has effectively been doubled in size. But, that doubling is sort of like the concept of the accumulation of junk DNA. A good portion of the old 2006 Guidelines should be replaced entirely by what is described within the 2019 Refinement. But given the nature of addendum, the only way to know which particular sections are overwritten is to first look up a section in the 2019 Refinement and then move back to the same section in the 2006 Guidelines to fully grasp the combined current good practice. And yes, there are additional refinements for the Wetlands Supplement as well. OK, now I’ll stop. The 2019 Refinement is awkward and will take more work to use, but nevertheless that shouldn’t stop us from utilizing them.

Technically the new guidelines are a substantive improvement and you should use them.

Since 2006, ample new scientific knowledge has become available in the literature to update the guidelines, particularly with respect to new emission factors and technologies. More specifically the 2019 Refinement:

Ultimately, it is expected that all countries will use the 2019 Refinement for GHG reporting under the Enhanced Transparency Framework (ETF) of the Paris Agreement. For this to happen, the 2019 Refinement will have to be agreed upon through a decision of the Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement. Amidst the unfortunate dumpster smolder that is the delayed UNFCCC negotiations process, who knows when this formal decision will be taken. Regardless, all countries and anyone else can voluntarily begin using them immediately.

So, what is in this new 2019 Refinement? Overall, there are hundreds of small technical updates. But, there are also a few broader improvements to highlight.

I am sure you agree that this detailed technical work on guidelines is enormously important and foundational to climate change policy at all levels.

I’ll conclude with a summary of the major improvements you will find in the 2019 Refinement (see below). This summary is itself a short version of a longer more detailed summary by the IPCC, which you can find here.

Volume 1 (General Guidance and Reporting)

Volume 2 (Energy)

All methodological updates made in the 2019 Refinement are in the fugitive emissions categories. No methodological updates were made for stationary combustion or mobile combustion.

Volume 3 (Industrial Processes and Product Use)

Volume 4 (Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use)

Volume 5 (Waste)

11 responses to “Should I use the new IPCC GHG Inventory Guidelines?”

  1. Tinus Pulles says:

    As one of the CLAs of the Energy Volume of the 2006 IPCC Guidelines, I am quite happy that the largest part of most inventories (fossil fuel combustion) does not need refinement. This is because we know the major CO2 sources quite well. It is not much more than high school chemistry. The methods are not significantly changed for a number of decades.
    So the political view of this seems to be much more complicated than the technical part.

  2. Tendayi Marowa says:

    Thank you for the information which is very useful.

  3. Pedro Martins Barata says:

    So Michael, could we not just make a compilation of the old AND new guidance? In the EU legislative process, there are entire Directives which are amendments to old Directives, but the Commission helpfully puts out a non-official Consolidated text (see eg the EU ETS Directive). Couldn’t someone (nod nod wink wink) do the same?

    • Pedro, I fully agree and yet someone should do such. The IPCC does not currently have such a mandate, so it would be up to some other entity to do so. I have advocated for such a complication already. GHG Management Institute would be happy to take on such a task, but it is a large one. And time and resources are limited. Plus it would be an ongoing commitment to keep said compilation updated. Eventually, it will likely need to happen.

  4. Medea Inashvili says:

    As the 2006 GLs were officially adopted for use after about 10 years later, no wonder that the scientific knowledge surely needed update. In so big lag between elaboration and adoption will always require such supplements and refinements to add new technologies and knowledge.

    • Agree. The process of updating takes years. And the IPCC’s resources are limited. Plus, the Parties (national governments) to the UNFCCC prefer not to have the guidelines changing too frequently so as to have the numbers behind the negotiations always in flux.

  5. Carlos Lopez says:

    Hi Michael. Thanks for raising this important topic and sharing your views. I agree with your criteria and I would only highlight, as a personal comment, also the importance as part of the process of having an upgraded version of the IPCC Inventory Software for the national GHG inventories. This is the key tool that non-Annex I Parties are currently using to compile and report the inventory. In fact, last inventory reports from several of these countries already reflect the use of the 2019 Refinement. The IPCC TSU of the IPCC TFI is currently working on the full implementation of the 2006 IPPC GLs in the software and at this time they consider will not undertake the upgrade to the 2019 Refinement possibly for the next 2 years.

    Ind Contractor GSP – GHG Inventory Resource Group

    • Carlos, we could not agree more. Although, we are also not sure the IPCC inventory software is necessarily the only tool to invest in. We see a need for a range of tools. Although not too many. Right now we also have the challenge that many countries are attempting to develop their own MRV software systems, and we fear much of those resources will end up with dead end and unusable software. As you know, we are deep into this process in support of the Caribbean region through the MRV Hub, on which you serve as a Steering Committee member. We have done one of the deepest investigative efforts on the various tools out there, and their gaps. This topic is a focus area for GHGMI now and will be for the next several years. Of course, as is our tendency, we are doing this work quietly without flash and marketing. We prefer to focus on substance.


  6. Nici Palmer says:

    Great article Michael. Any chance of an update to the blog with the release of IPCC 6th Assessment Report? In terms of GHG accounting, is it best practice to update GWPs with each revision? Defra still uses the 4th Assessment.

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