A surveillance probe that can monitor each country’s emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is to be launched by Nasa in the first step towards a global policing system for controlling climate change gases.
A prototype of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO), launched last year, has proven so successful that scientists have been able to measure emissions from individual cities. Now Nasa has confirmed plans for a far more powerful version, OCO3, which will fly over every country in the world measuring CO2 and methane emissions. The European Space Agency is considering an even more advanced satellite called CarbonSat.
“Space-based CO2 measurements are a promising new tool for monitoring global greenhouse gas agreements,” said David Crisp, OCO science team leader at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. “We could point this instrument at, say, Britain and get a detailed picture. We could even see the plumes of CO2 rising from London and calculate its real emissions.”
Crisp’s team has spent the past year gathering data from the prototype satellite (OCO2) and plans to publish it this autumn, shortly before a UN conference in Paris where policy makers will try to draw up a global treaty to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
The data could help transform the talks — where one of the key obstacles has always been over how to monitor any agreement. Currently, countries calculate emissions based on the amount of fossil fuels burnt. However, such calculations are too complex for many developing nations, while for advanced ones there is a temptation to understate — so most national emissions figures are just estimates.
Last week China claimed that it had cut CO2 emissions by 5% in a year, a remarkable — and unlikely — achievement in such a fast-growing economy.
Crisp said the new instrument, to be launched in 2018 and fixed to the International Space Station, could verify such claims — and solve key scientific problems. Perhaps the most important is the “mystery of the missing carbon”.