Tracking CO2 emissions from space could help support climate deals

Tracking CO2 emissions from space could help support climate deals

The key objective of the Paris Agreement is to limit global warming to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, but preferably to 1.5°C.

This challenging task requires policies and tools that enable every sector of society to drastically reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, eventually reaching net zero.

Implementing the most effective and efficient strategies to reduce emissions starts with knowing exactly where, when and how much of these greenhouse gases we are emitting, followed by implementing emission reduction policies and tracking our progress.

Is it possible to track carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and emission reductions from space? New research from my group shows that this is the case.

Why CO2 is important

CO2 is the main greenhouse gas driving climate change. The burning of fossil fuels to generate electricity, heat buildings, industry and transport has increased the levels of CO2 in our atmosphere well above natural levels.

Currently, reporting of CO2 emissions is mainly done by considering the mass of fossil fuels purchased and consumed and then calculating expected emissions – not actual atmospheric CO2 measurements. More precise details about when and where emissions occurred are often unavailable, but more transparent monitoring of carbon emissions could help track the effectiveness of emissions reduction measures.

Today, GPS satellites help us get around, weather satellites track weather systems, and communications satellites relay television, Internet, and telephone signals. It’s time we used satellites to tackle the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced – climate change.

Satellites for measuring CO2

A global network of ground-based CO2 measurements began in 1957 and today consists of over a hundred stations around the world. Accurate and precise measurements from these stations have revealed much about changes in global atmospheric CO2 and the Earth’s overall carbon cycle, but we cannot place these stations anywhere on Earth.

Satellites can observe the entire planet. Those measuring CO2 in the lower atmosphere near the Earth’s surface (where CO2 emissions and CO2 uptake by plants occur) first began measuring in 2002. Since then, they’ve gotten better and better at it, but there have been setbacks along the way.

About a decade of NASA effort has gone into developing the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) satellite to take precise measurements of atmospheric CO2 around the world.

NASA developed the Orbiting Carbon Observatory satellite to take precise measurements of atmospheric CO2 around the world.
(NASA/JPL), author provided

In 2009, OCO was lost due to a launch issue. After a sustained commitment to rebuilding this important climate mission, NASA secured new funding to launch the OCO-2 satellite in 2014 and OCO-3 to the International Space Station in 2019.

The OCO missions were designed to improve our understanding of CO2 absorption by vegetation, also known as the land carbon sink. But what about CO2 emissions from fossil fuels?

A new way to check CO2 emissions

In 2017, I led a research team that published the first study to show that we can quantify CO2 emissions at the scale of a single power plant using OCO-2 observations.

Because OCO-2 was not designed for this purpose, its coverage and infrequent visits were insufficient for operational global CO2 emissions monitoring, but we can still quantify emissions in selected cases if the satellite passes close enough and a good cloud-free view Has.

OCO-3 is very similar to OCO-2, but has an additional directing mirror that allows it to better map CO2 around interesting targets such as the Bełchatów Power Plant in Poland, Europe’s largest fossil-fuel burning power plant and source of CO2.

A power plant
Bełchatów Power Plant, Europe’s largest power plant burning fossil fuels.

With ten clear views of Bełchatów CO2 emission plumes taken by OCO-2 and OCO-3 from 2017-2022 analyzed in our new study, we were able to determine the emissions on those days.

European power plants report hourly electricity production but only annual CO2 emissions. Electricity generation varies with electricity demand and generation unit shutdowns (for maintenance or decommissioning) and CO2 emissions are expected to vary proportionately.

We confirmed this using OCO-2 and OCO-3 in our recent article, which showed that satellite observations can track changes in plant-level CO2 emissions. This means satellites can be used to verify (or refute) reported CO2 emission reductions resulting from climate change mitigation – such as mandated efficiency improvements, carbon capture and storage technologies, etc.

OCO-3 observations of a CO2 emission plume from the Bełchatów Power Plant in Poland on April 10, 2020 overlaid with Google Earth imagery.
A high-CO2 plume resulting from coal burning can be seen in OCO-3 observations downwind of the Bełchatów power plant.
(Ray Nasar), author provided

Emission monitoring for the Paris climate agreement

Our approach can be applied to more power plants or modified for CO2 emissions from cities or countries with OCO-2 and OCO-3. We can also try to integrate the satellite observations with CO2 monitoring from the ground or from the air.

While we are already working on this, progress will be gradual until the launch of the European Commission-funded Copernicus Anthropogenic CO2 Monitoring Mission, or “CO2M”. CO2M consists of two satellites that are scheduled to launch in late 2025.

These satellites will provide around 50 times the coverage of OCO-2 and OCO-3 combined and form the space component of the European CO2 Emissions Monitoring, Verification and Support (MVS) system.

CO2M will be a big step forward but, like successful global climate action, will require contributions from many countries. Long-term robust operational global monitoring of greenhouse gas emissions requires a constellation of satellites contributed by multiple countries as part of an integrated global observing system.

Hopefully, with a new, more detailed and transparent tracking of man-made greenhouse gas emissions to assess and guide the most effective strategies, society can achieve the emissions reductions needed to reach net zero in a timely manner.

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