Satellites could help track if nations keep their carbon pledges

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Satellites could help track if nations keep their carbon pledges

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit global warming, nations must measure and report progress toward their committed reductions in emissions. They regularly accumulate greenhouse gas inventories, detailing emissions sources as well as the ejections, or sinks, of gases within their borders. These are then reviewed by technical experts.

The purpose of the accounting process is to ensure transparency and build trust, but it takes time and the numbers can be far from accurate.

But what if changes in emissions of the main planet-warming gas, carbon dioxide, could be reported more accurately and rapidly? This could be extremely useful as the world seeks to limit warming.

A new project, Climate Trace, described by former Vice President Al Gore at an event with the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow on Wednesday, uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to analyze satellite imagery and sensor data that There are accurate emissions estimates. in near-real time.

But NASA researchers and colleagues reported Wednesday what they called a milestone toward a different goal: measuring the actual change in carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere as countries take steps to reduce emissions.

The researchers said that by plugging satellite measurements of CO2 into Earth-system models, they were able to detect small decreases in atmospheric concentrations of the gas in the United States and other regions as a result of the coronavirus lockdowns in early 2020.

According to some estimates, the decline in economic activity from the lockdown led to a reduction in emissions by 10 percent or more, although emissions have increased again. Those reductions may seem large, but they mean only a very small change in the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, which currently exceeds 410 parts per million.

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The researchers were able to detect a drop of around 0.3 parts per million during the lockdown period.

“We believe this is a milestone,” said Brad Weir, a research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and lead author of a paper describing the work published in the journal Science Advances.

The satellite, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, was not designed to measure changes in human-caused CO2 emissions. Rather, it was to look at how large-scale natural climate patterns such as El Nio and La Nia affect CO2 concentration. The satellite measures CO2 in the column of air between its position and Earth’s surface, and can detect excess or low levels of the gas before it is evenly mixed in the atmosphere.

“We were fortunate that there was not a strong El Nio effect in early 2020,” Dr. Weir said, noting that a strong El Nio signal would have masked a human-caused one.

Several additional CO2-measuring satellites are due to be launched in the coming years. “As we have better and better observational capabilities, we believe it is possible to monitor emissions through space-based observations,” Dr. Weir said.

Johannes Friedrich, a senior colleague at the World Resources Institute, the research organization that studies emissions accounting, said the current measurements, particularly emissions from fossil fuels, were reasonably accurate. The measurements are based on reporting human activities, such as the operation of a specific coal-fired power plant; Calculating emissions from burning coal is relatively simple and straightforward. “We know a lot about where emissions come from, and most countries record them,” Mr Frederick said.

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Emissions from agriculture and deforestation present more uncertainty. For example, estimates of greenhouse gases emitted by cattle are only estimates. And emissions from deforestation can vary depending on the degree and extent of clearing, among other factors.

Mr Frederick, who was not involved in the study, said he thought satellite-based measurements could potentially work in the future. “At this point in time it’s still huge challenges,” he said.

“You’ll need very regular measurements, at very good resolution, and very good coverage of the entire United States, for example,” he said. “And it’s still very difficult.”

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