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Report finds Providence may be drastically underestimating its carbon emissions

Scientists find discrepancies up to 60 percent in emission reporting

Providence may be underestimating its carbon dioxide emission figures by up to 60 percent, which would make it the city with the fifth-most inaccurate reporting in the country, according to a recent study published by Nature Communications. These disparities would threaten the City’s ability to meet emission reduction goals in the future.

The report compared self-reported data from 48 American cities to independent estimates from the Vulcan carbon dioxide emissions data, an annual dataset created by researchers at Northern Arizona State University in conjunction with NASA.

Director of Sustainability for the City of Providence Leah Bamberger was not surprised by the report’s findings. “Cities have long been challenged by the reporting requirements and tracking of greenhouse gas emissions,” she said.

According to Bamberger, Providence faces many challenges in tracking its emissions. These include the arbitrary nature of city boundaries, natural gas leakages, traffic emissions from I-95 and the Manchester Street Power Station as well as the lack of data on commercial waste, she said, adding that the City has to make difficult decisions about how to include and measure these factors.

J. Timmons Roberts, professor of environmental studies, environment and society and sociology at the University, provided further context for why Providence would be more inaccurate in its reporting than other cities. In an email to The Herald, he wrote that people could drive through Providence but buy their gas elsewhere, thus possibly eluding the City’s tracking of transportation emissions.

Because people commute to and through Providence — a relatively small city — it is likely that the City’s methods for measuring carbon dioxide emissions cannot pick up on these contributions, he wrote. In contrast, it is likely that larger cities have more gas stations and more registered vehicles, which yield more accurate emissions data.

Still, despite these challenges in calculating emissions, Bamberger underscored the value in having a consistent methodology for doing so. “It's really about benchmarking ourselves and making progress in reducing emissions,” she said. “That's not to say accuracy is not important, but our options are to report what we know and benchmark ourselves against that.”

Even with some unavailable data, the City still aims to do the best it can “to assess and understand and make reductions in our carbon footprint,” she added.

Both Bamberger and Roberts also mentioned limitations of the Nature Communications report. The findings of the report “don't really help us in any way,” she said. “In terms of plans for the future, it doesn't offer us a consistent new way to track or measure our greenhouse gas emissions.”

Roberts noted that the report failed to mention any natural gas leakage issues. According to him, this problem — which he outlined in a 2019 study — “could mean that Rhode Island's greenhouse gas emissions could be 45 percent higher than the state reports.”

Speaking more broadly about the risks of inaccurate reporting, James Crowley, a staff attorney for the Rhode Island chapter of the Conservation Law Foundation, discussed the importance of accurately accounting for environmental factors. He said that inaccurate understanding of carbon emissions can make it harder to formulate the best policy goals to tackle climate change. 

Allison Archambault, a supervising air quality specialist at the Rhode Island Department of Energy Management, emphasized that to have the most accurate understanding possible, the state tries to use Rhode Island-specific data when utilizing the Environmental Protection Agency’s estimation tools. 

But Crowley expressed concern over some of the state’s accounting practices. He explained that the state still bases carbon reduction goals off of reports from the 1990s, despite having changed their tracking methodology repeatedly since then. He said it would be more effective to redefine Rhode Island goals based on the most current data. 

While potential inaccuracies in emission reporting make it difficult to meet future reduction goals, both Crowley and Roberts said an even more effective approach to staying on track would be to make these goals mandatory and enforceable. 

“City pledges are nice, but they aren't necessarily binding,” Roberts wrote. “States and the country should have binding limits, as Massachusetts and Connecticut have from their 2008 Global Warming Solutions Acts. R.I. only has non-binding targets from its 2014 Resilient Rhode Island Act.”

He and Crowley both support the Act On Climate bill, which is currently being debated in the state legislature. Crowley said that the bill would make reduction targets mandatory and enforceable, update the state's emissions goals from an 80 percent reduction to net-zero by 2050 and change the methodology of emission accounting.


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