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Satellite Tracking Could Help Hold Big Carbon Emitters to Account

The struggle to hold power plants legally accountable for their carbon dioxide emissions—or, failing that, to force greater compliance with regulations—may have gotten a bit easier, thanks to a California-based non-profit that has figured out how to track, compile, and share emissions data gathered by satellite.

A recipient of a US$1.7-million grant from Google’s 2019 Artificial Intelligence Impact Challenge, WattTime will be working with the World Resources Institute (WRI), which holds the most comprehensive global database of power plants, and UK-based Carbon Tracker, “to harness existing satellite imagery and infrared technology to measure emissions from all power plants nearly in real time,” Climate Liability News reports. The hope is that the satellite data “will provide new ammunition to plaintiffs in climate liability cases by showing how much of global warming can be attributed to particular sources.”

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“This will have massive, far-reaching implications in the evidence to back some of those claims, or back some of those potential plaintiffs in court, if it comes to that,” said WattTime Director of Operations Chiel Borenstein.

Others aren’t so sure the Oakland-based non-profit’s innovations will make much difference in litigation, given that climate liability cases already use comprehensive data on the world’s top 100 emitters in the Climate Accountability Institute’s 2017 carbon majors report.

While she was doubtful the satellite data system would do much to advance the cause of climate litigation, Pace Law School environmental law professor Katrina Fischer Kuh told Climate Liability News it could “allow more accurate monitoring of pollutants to help enforce environmental laws.” In particular, “satellite imagery will prove more helpful in legal cases centred on pollutants other than CO2—methane, for example, which is harder to detect—and could help litigants meet the burden of proof with more precise data on individual emitters,” she said.

But the true crux in any case involving climate liability is to prove “the cause-effect connection between emissions and harm done,” Kuh said. “The defendants aren’t disputing that they are responsible for the emissions of a lot of the greenhouse gases.”

When it comes to enforcing compliance, Michael Wara, director of Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment, said monitoring carbon emissions via satellite imaging would be an improvement over current methods, which rely on smokestack censors that “are prone to tampering.” The WattTime technology could also be applied “uniformly across the world, transcending individual countries’ interests, and making it more difficult to cheat.”

UCLA law professor Sean Hecht, co-executive director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, said the system could also support compliance monitoring under the 2015 Paris Agreement. The system’s “technological capabilities will help in countries that produce a large quantity of CO2 emissions but have weak regulations and questionable monitoring,” he noted.

Responding to criticism that WattTime’s focus on power plants is too narrow to provide fresh insights into global emissions, Borenstein said the non-profit’s work will be critical in capturing data from countries with regulation and transparency issues, “from the perspective of holding organizations and the biggest emitters accountable for their actions”.