How do we measure the success of climate action if we don’t have timely data? That’s the question Lekha Sridhar, Senior Policy Analyst and Climate TRACE set out to answer.

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The Big Idea

Let’s start with some basics.

What are greenhouse gases?

They are what trap heat in our atmosphere and they are what are causing climate change:

  • Carbon dioxide: the most abundant greenhouse gas which stays in the atmosphere forever unless sequestered. 
  • Methane and Nitrous Oxide: Short-lived (by that we mean they stay in the atmosphere for between 20-30 years) but have 200 times more warming potential than CO2.

What emits them?

Pretty much everything. 

The biggest sources of carbon emission are energy production: cars, power plants, heavy industries producing steel and cement, and agriculture.

The Paris Agreement

If you’ve been listening to the podcast for long enough, you’ve probably heard about the Paris Agreement by now. But what is it exactly? 

The Paris Agreement is a legally binding international treaty on climate change. It was adopted by 196 Parties at COP21 in Paris, on 12 December 2015. In layperson’s terms, it’s an agreement that countries made to try and stop screwing the planet.

The Paris Agreement’s goal is to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels.

To achieve this temperature goal, countries aim to limit greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible to achieve a climate neutral world by mid-century.

How do we know if the Paris Agreement is working?

It’s all about transparency. 

“Transparency in emissions is the backbone of the Paris Agreement. Countries report their emissions every couple of years. And for some countries, it’s every year when they’re high income countries. That’s how we know that, you know, countries are doing what they said that they would do.”

But are some people telling porkies?

To put it bluntly, Lekha reveals, “in a lot of cases, we don’t know.” Why? “Greenhouse gases is such a dense and opaque area that I didn’t know about, even though I’ve been working in the climate space until I started working on this project,” says Lekha. 

How do you measure greenhouse gas emissions?

We’re very good at measuring greenhouse gas emissions on a planetary scale. There are satellites in space that are used to detect the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide in a measurement known as “parts per million” (ppm). “Parts per million” refers to the number of carbon dioxide molecules per million molecules of dry air.

At the time of writing, there were 417 ppm. Compared to twenty years ago, it was 373ppm

But what we really want to know, in order to keep people accountable, is more granular than that. In the case of individual power plants, for example, Lekha says, we just don’t know. 

The gold standard for knowing what emissions are from a single source, according to Lekha, are sensors, similar to the ones that are up in space measuring the planet’s emissions but right at the power plant or facility. These sensors give constant live data on what the emissions coming from that facility are. 

The problem is that only a fraction of the facilities around the world actually have one of those. And you guessed it, they’re only available in specific countries. 

But how are all the other power plants doing?

The data tends to be patchy, fragmented, and relies a lot on estimations based on physics. In fact, that’s how a lot of companies, countries and state governments are measuring emissions on a good old Excel spreadsheet.

In a nutshell, we have a good global picture, but a bad local picture.

So how do we catch the emissions villains?

Well, it’s not so much a blame game but about incentivising the ‘good guys’ to do their job.

“It isn’t just about catching the bad guy. It’s also about helping the good guys do a better job. If a city knew where its emissions were coming from, they’d be like, ‘Great, now we can put in a policy to fix buildings, or heat pumps, and switch all our heating to electric heating.”

In our climate-crisis world, you need to know pretty quickly if what you’re doing is working. We just can’t afford to wait a few decades to see if the actions we’re taking are having an impact. We don’t have decades. We don’t even have years. 

No data, no dice.

Data from these sensors also allows you to see if the actions you’re taking are having the right effect. Was switching all our cars to electric worthwhile? The data will tell us. 

“You want to make sure that you’re focusing on the right things, that the actions you’ve taken in the past are actually having the impact you want them to.There are also knock-on effects as well. For example, if you want to get a project financed, you need data. And no surprise, all of the climate finance tends to go to the richer countries that have this strong culture of collecting data, whereas the countries that really need the financing aren’t accessing it. And a part of that reason is lack of data.”

How could we be better?

“Ground truth” is information that is known to be real or true, provided by direct observation and measurement as opposed to information provided by inference. It’s the royale with cheese of all truths. 

“Ground truth data,” Lekha says, “is as close to the objective truth that you can get when it comes to a greenhouse gas measurement.”

Ground truth data is only available in a few locations. But what does collect a global picture are satellites.

We have so many satellites that have been launched in recent years. Not only are they collecting emissions’ data, they’re also collecting a lot of imagery. 

Climate TRACE, the organisation at which Lekha is a Senior Policy Analyst, uses satellite imagery to identify observable signals of emissions. 

Let’s take the example of a power plant. How do you know if it’s on? There’s a steam plume coming out of it. You can see that on an image. So while you’re not actually seeing the emissions, you’re seeing a proxy for the emissions, which is the steam plume. 

Climate TRACE collects as many images as they can of these in as many locations as possible. And then trains their artificial intelligence algorithms on the ground truth data and correlate the two of them. 

“Now, for the locations where we do have ground truth data and those images [collected by Climate TRACE using satellites], we now know what the emissions are. And we can use that same model for countries and locations where we have no ground truth data. So now we actually do have a picture of emissions globally.”

Climate TRACE does this for every sector. 

AI for climate good.

The beauty of this is that the more data gets fed into the algorithm, the smarter and more accurate the AI gets.

But it’s in its infancy right now and there’s a lot that could be done to improve the accuracy. “We’ve made a really good start,” says Lekha, “We’ve got the machinery in place. Now we’ve got to just keep building on it.”

How has this tech been received?

According to Lekha, it’s all been positive. Especially from big companies who have made emissions commitments. Listen to more about those on our ‘going-beyond-greenwashing’ episode with Helen Clarkson

All of those companies that have made commitments, they’re going to need data to fulfil them. Because how do you halve emissions if you don’t know what the total number of emissions is in the first place?

“You’ve had several large companies saying, ‘we’re gonna go net zero by 2050.’ Now, all of them are realising that they’ve made these commitments but how are they going to have the data to actually know where their palm oil came from? There’s immense demand for technologies like these, to help people really understand where their emissions are coming from and have an accurate picture of it.”

Once you know where you’re getting your supplies from, you’re going to know better what your emissions output is. 

Okay, so who’s hiding their emissions?

You’d expect that certain countries would benefit from misrepresentation of data so that they could carry on burning fossil fuels like there’s no tomorrow and get away with it. 

Lekha is more optimistic: “I don’t think there’s a malicious officer twirling his moustache going ‘Haha how do I get away with this?’”

“People just don’t know that there are better ways to do things. And that’s why we’re here to let people know that there’s this new source of data that [they] can incorporate into [their] existing inventories [a measurement of a country’s emissions from every single sector].”

Time to update your emissions inventories.

Last year, Climate TRACE calculated that there were over 100 countries whose inventories were older than 2015, the year they entered the Paris Agreement. And that includes huge emitters, like India and China. There have been like 17 versions of the iPhone since then.

“To be fair, preparing an inventory is time consuming, and expensive. It’s not just two people in a room. You have to source information from every single department of your government. And those departments are sourcing information from all the producers. Some countries have built these systems but for many countries, it’s going to take time for them to get there and build these systems.”

Unfortunately, we don’t don’t have time. We need data right now that is recent and timely. So that people can know that the policy they put in place last year is working.

What’s the best case scenario?

“That would be for everyone to look at this data and use it to make better decisions on where their emissions are coming from and switch to decisions that reduce their emissions. That’s the hope,” says Lekha. 

The good news? Climate TRACE is launching their first ever version of our database, which will have emissions down to an individual facility, which is what’s going to help people know the emissions from their supply chains and will be a big part of helping people have more transparency into their emissions.

Until next time — stay curious! 

Tune in to Climate Curious from Climate Week NYC with co-hosts Ben Hurst and Maryam Pasha to get to grips with the data behind greenhouse gas emissions, how AI-powered algorithms can help us and why this isn’t just an exercise to identify the ‘bad guys’ – transparency and accountability helps us all create a better future. 

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