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Gary Davis and Dr Richard Tipper of Ecometrica argue that outdated inventory-based systems have to be replaced with direct accounting methods if we are to meet the Paris Agreement
The recent BBC exposé on greenhouse gas data highlighted a fundamental problem with the way countries are reporting their environmental impact. But while flawed measurements may allow some countries to under-report the level of pollution they are emitting, new modern direct methods of monitoring greenhouse gases are fast becoming available.
BBC Radio 4's Counting Carbon programme found that air sampling by scientists produced results that were at odds with what countries were reporting for the purposes of the Paris Agreement, especially regarding lesser-known but highly damaging gases produced by certain industries. The problem essentially lies with the “inventory” accounting system, which is used to extrapolate emissions levels from estimates of industrial and other activity.
Such under-reporting is not just a problem in terms of fairness and ensuring a level playing field when it comes to international obligations, it is also not ideal when it comes to fostering the goodwill upon which the current consensus is built.
Accurate, verified data is crucial when it comes to knowing the extent of the damage we are doing to the environment, and predicting the impact of climate change. It is also an essential tool in tackling climate change efficiently. By building up a clear picture of the activities that are causing the most damage, governments and businesses can look to reduce the most harmful emissions with as little economic impact as possible.
The Counting Carbon programme illustrated how the inventory accounting system has already reached the limit of its accuracy for greenhouse gas accounting, particularly for gases other than CO2. It has been superseded by advanced emissions data-gathering technological solutions, which now exist at lower costs.
While the BBC's investigation focused on excellent work carried out by scientists at a weather station high in the Alps, such fixed stations can only provide a small snapshot of polluting activities. But by using remotely sensed data from UAVs and satellites, we now have the capability to provide accurate, transparent, near real-time emissions monitoring over the entire globe.
Already, much information on both the atmosphere and the environment is being gathered in this way. For example, NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) is on a mission to locate the Earth’s main sources of atmospheric carbon dioxide. It will produce the most detailed picture to date of natural sources of carbon dioxide, as well as their sinks, the places on Earth’s surface where carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere.
Further space missions already in the pipeline will soon be contributing even more data. Merlin (Methane Remote Sensing Lidar Mission) is a Franco-German collaborative mini-satellite climate mission. Launching in 2019, its primary objective is to obtain spatial and temporal gradients of atmospheric methane columns with high precision and unprecedented accuracy on a global scale. The impact of methane is 25 times more powerful than that of carbon dioxide on a timescale of 100 years.
All of this can be amalgamated with intelligence gathered on the ground and from Earth Observation Labs, aimed at deriving maximum benefit from the vast amounts of spatial data produced by satellites to produce a more accurate picture of the emissions, which are causing climate change. However, in order to get a truly accurate and up-to-date global map of emissions as they happen, we should be designing and launching additional sensors to monitor the other key greenhouse gases.
The technologies to do this are available, and the cost of deploying them is coming down all the time. Beyond that, the main technical challenge is one of interpreting and understanding the data.
Technology companies are offering exciting new ways of handling large, continuous flows of data. They offer arrays of functions for complex polygons for particular timeframes, and then process these into user-accessible graphics and tables. This is undoubtedly an important part of the solution, but the main issues holding back the exploitation of this big data treasure trove are social and economic.
In the absence of a clear understanding of what end user content is required, and without a clear business cases for delivery, the technology on its own will not crystallise to deliver viable services. The Earth observation community is currently grappling with the problem of how to turn vast resources of freely available data into economically viable information products.
A related challenge is ensuring long-term economic viability of information services. There is still a big gap in the understanding of users in the need to pay for information products even when the raw data is free. Data processing, classification, calibration and quality controls all require time, effort and resources that are not readily provided by an open data model in the absence of a benevolent state or multinational IT company.
Should a standard real-data method be adopted for the purposes of measuring how countries are shaping up to their Paris Agreement obligations, the funding may be made available. It would certainly be a good investment compared to the wasted resources inherent in fighting climate change based on inaccurate data.
Supplementing and eventually replacing the inventory-based systems with more modern direct accounting methods should, therefore, be a key priority. This would lay bare the real impact countries are having on the world's atmosphere and climate, and cynics may argue that the biggest obstacle is that this is hardly in the interest of the biggest polluters.
However, the Paris Agreement itself is a triumph of optimism and suggests that the will is there. The agreement is now fully in force and smashed its key milestone of having 55 countries join - 195 have done so, with more than 68% of global emissions now represented. Even the US' intention to pull out under President Trump seems to have galvanised action by the rest of the world to make additional progress under the Paris Agreement.
The world has signalled that it's serious about reducing emissions, in particular, the catastrophic impact climate change is reaping throughout the planet, and is ready to commit a decent amount of resource on this goal. It makes sense for all countries to also get serious about accurately monitoring and reporting verified emissions data in order to protect their valuable natural assets.
Gary Davis is chief executive and Dr Richard Tipper is executive chairman of Ecometrica, the sustainability software and satellite data company