Tracking Global Climate Progress: Why MRV is a Good Idea

As government leaders from nearly 200 nations converge on Cancun, one important point of negotiation will be MRV, or Measurement, Reporting and Verification. An important acronym in the long list of abbreviations for the international climate treaty process, 

MRV means, simply put, a system of oversight to track and verify who’s doing what. If agreed upon by the international community, MRV would provide an independent assessment of whether countries are delivering on their pledges to reduce global warming pollution. To over-simplify it: MRV =  transparency.

In past negotiations, and again in Cancun, MRV has been a sticking point and from the start the United States has insisted that MRV must be a key part of any international climate change treaty.

Clearly the principle of MRV makes sense. After all, how else will we know if governments are upholding their pledges to reduce climate change? It is essential, from a global standpoint, that countries measure and report their emissions reductions, and that the information is verified to ensure it is reliable. With human lives and the future of the planet hanging in the balance, handshakes and promises aren’t enough to guarantee that we stop this global problem. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that some suggest that MRV has an uncomfortable “big brother,” “UN Inspector” feel to it. That’s why China strongly opposed MRV last year in Copenhagen, arguing that any inspection regime would impinge upon its sovereignty. However, as my colleague Jake Schmidt wrote, “Having a strong, credible, and transparent system for tracking greenhouse gas emissions and the actions of a country is an essential building block of an effective international system to address global warming.

Last week, NRDC released a new set of recommendations on how to improve the current system of “tracking the carbon and actions” of countries (available here).

NRDC has long proposed that having a robust, transparent and accountable MRV system will benefit all countries by making public the extent of their progress towards controlling emissions. As Jake explains, MRV will allow countries to get the global recognition they deserve for reducing their contribution to climate change. Such a system would also help countries with their domestic implementation by providing accurate, up to date, and credible information – a strong basis for policy decisions, and a clear way to identify areas for improvement.

And it seems that, at long last, important global players are starting to agree.

This week, while stopping short of announcing a shift in China's opposition to MRV, Reuters reported that the country was willing to be more transparent over its climate change policy. “We now realize that in the past we took action, but didn't tell anyone about it," Xie Zhenhua, one of China’s lead negotiators, said. "Now we think: if we've done something, why not say so?”  India is similarly pushing for a global emissions monitoring system that could become central to a compromise, assuming the United States agrees to certain terms.

No matter how simple and logical the need for a well-designed MRV is, whether an agreement is reached in Cancun will ultimately depend on the quality of the commitments that countries are willing to make in exchange for this open reporting of emissions and actions.