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Satellites Could Bring Greater Transparency to Tracking CO2 Emissions

Researchers at NASA are one giant leap closer to using satellite-based measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to monitor progress toward national emissions reduction pledges.

“The researchers said that by plugging satellite measurements of CO2 into an Earth systems model, they were able to detect small reductions in atmospheric concentration of the gas over the United States and other areas that were a result of coronavirus lockdowns in early 2020,” reports The New York Times.

The 2015 Paris Agreement obligates nations to measure and report progress towards their national emission reduction targets. However, the intended purpose—to ensure transparency and build trust—is undermined by a greenhouse gas inventory process that is time-consuming and inaccurate.

As a result, various researchers and projects are working to develop a rapid, accurate method to measure national emissions, such as the Climate TRACE project, which uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to analyze satellite imagery and form emissions estimates. But the recent work by NASA builds off the capabilities of satellites, measuring how concentrations are affected by large-scale climate patterns.

“As we have better and better observing capabilities, we believe that monitoring of emissions through space-based observations is feasible,” Dr. Brad Weir, a research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, told the Times. 

While more carbon dioxide measuring satellites are scheduled for launch in the future, there is still more progress needed before satellite-based measurements will be an effective enough monitoring tool to replace the current accounting system. 

The current system provides “reasonably accurate” data on point-source emissions by tracking and documenting human activity—for example, measuring the emissions produced by burning coal at a power plant, says the Times. Once properly developed, satellite technology will offer an opportunity to measure changes from more diffuse emissions sources, like agriculture and deforestation, which are much harder to track using the current system.