NASA, Google offer more precise emissions tracking
17 , 2009 - Seth Borenstein and Michael Casey - The Associated Press
The question is a potential deal-killer: If nations ever agree to slash greenhouse
gas emissions, how will the world know if they live up to their pledges?
answer is in space, experts say - both outer space and cyberspace.
the wonder agency of the 1960s, and Google, the go-to company of the early 21st
century, are trying to give the world the ability to monitor both the carbon dioxide
pollution and the levels of forest destruction that contribute to global warming.
For NASA, this is both an opportunity and an embarrassment. NASA had a
science satellite, Orbiting Carbon Observatory, that as a side benefit would be
able to see where carbon dioxide was being spewed. But a February launch of the
$280 million satellite failed, sending the satellite into the cold Antarctic waters.
If given some money, NASA could have a $330 million "carbon copy," of the
downed-and-drowned satellite up flying around Earth in less than three years,
NASA Earth sciences chief Michael Freilich said.
"Just having the thing
flying around there imaging would just about make everybody act differently,"
said professor Steve Pacala, director of the Princeton Environmental Institute.
"The idea that you could pull a fast one would be different."
has rolled out a new program call Earth Engine which essentially is a massive
storehouse for satellite and other data that forest countries will be able to
access for free by the time of the next U.N. climate conference in Mexico next
Deforestation is the biggest climate change culprit in much of the
developing world, and industrial countries plan to pay billions of dollars to
poor countries to stop deforestation. The Google system could help everyone keep
track of what forests are saved.
"The science is out there, but the ability
to run it on large numbers of machines by countries in previous years who couldn't
afford it is now possible," said Brian McClen, vice president of engineering for
the Google Geo Group, who demonstrated the new program in Copenhagen.
technology alone cannot solve the problem, because there must be cooperation between
countries like China and the U.S. about how to ensure that greenhouse gas emissions
cuts are enforced, said U.S. Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations
Kerry told The Associated Press that talks with Chinese officials
Wednesday made progress on the problem of monitoring emissions, which were a sticking
point earlier. It's an especially big problem in the view of the U.S. Congress,
which has demanded that China and India back up their commitments with verifiable
China, meanwhile, acknowledged "positive exchanges" with Kerry
but brushed aside suggestions that China should be part of any international verification
"We have always followed a principle of openness and transparency
regarding information of China's national measures taken to address climate change
and greenhouse gases," said Su Wei, China's lead negotiator at the Copenhagen
talks. "I don't see the necessity for others to worry about the sincerity of China's
efforts in addressing climate change."
The monitoring problem "is a big
one because we don't know what we're counting," said Melinda Kimball, senior vice
president of the U.N. Foundation and a former top U.S. climate negotiator. "It
reminds me of arms control."
Part of the problem is that so many new coal-fired
plants are being built in China - many of them so small they are hard to keep
track of - that it is difficult for international energy experts to have a good
handle on precise carbon dioxide output.
That's where trying to launch
the copy of the NASA satellite comes in. The decision is awaiting White House
approval and is going through the budget process for next year.
White House science adviser John Holdren told reporters at climate talks Wednesday.
Until another satellite actually gets into the air, the way the world knows
about carbon dioxide involves a lot of guesswork, math and monitoring machines
- and a good amount of trust.
Experts' estimates of carbon dioxide emissions
are based on fuel going into power plants and complex formulas based on power
plant efficiency. But those estimates are also dependent on reliable information
about fuel and efficiency, so they could be skewed by inaccurate input. In the
United States and some other places, there are monitors on many power plants,
which mean better accuracy.
An individual coal-fired power plant produces
"a dome of carbon dioxide" and a satellite like NASA's could measure the emissions,
said Princeton's Pacala, who also chaired a study by the U.S. National Research
Council on what NASA should do after the launch failure.
is a must, Pacala said.
Being able to tell what individual power plants
spew is crucial to the cap-and-trade programs to reduce carbon emissions, like
the one being proposed in the United States. Under that, companies buy credits
- essentially the right to pollute - from companies that cut pollution. To carry
that out, you need good international figures, Kimball said.
already designed the original satellite, a new one could be up in the air only
28 months after White House approval, NASA's Freilich said.
is also crucial to a forest plan being negotiated at the U.N. talks. It calls
for rich nations to pay poor ones for reducing their deforestation. That's a challenge
because most of the deforestation is in countries with wide corruption and few
systems to monitor the loss of forests.
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