Climate TRACE: Using Satellites and Machine Learning to Track Global Emissions

Climate Satellite

Written by TerraPass


As we seek new and effective ways to reverse the effects of climate change, a coalition of tech companies and environmental groups has announced plans to track the world’s greenhouse gas emissions from 1,000 miles above our heads.

An international collaboration called Climate TRACE (Tracking Real-time Atmospheric Carbon Emissions) is developing a tool that monitors all of the world’s emissions and tracks them down to their original sources. With a launch date of Summer 2021, the system will use a combination of satellite image processing, machine learning, big data, and special sensors located in regions all over the world.

Climate TRACE plans to offer an unprecedented view of the location and size of each emission source – such as power plants, mines, factories, and cargo ships. It will then use a global database network to independently cross-check and verify the information and make it available to the general public. The coalition hopes that its tool will be instrumental in shaping future climate negotiations – and prevent governments and companies from underreporting the size of their carbon footprints.

But while the TRACE system could be a powerful weapon in the fight against global warming – it’s an understatement to say that tracking all of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions in real-time is a monumental task. And so, let’s take a closer look to find out who’s behind Climate TRACE, the challenges ahead, how the system works – and what it could mean for the future of our planet.

Who Created Climate TRACE?

Climate TRACE is a partnership between nine organizations across three continents, comprised of tech companies, NGO’s, and climate action groups. TRACE includes nonprofits CarbonPlan, Carbon Tracker, Earthrise Alliance, Hudson Carbon, OceanMind, Rocky Mountain Institute, and WattTime, as well as the tech companies Blue Sky Analytics and Hypervine. Each organization shares the common goal of reducing global CO2 emissions – while seeking to work together to improve and expand existing technologies.

“Nearly all the best technology tools that are used extensively today are the product of global collaboration in a free and open-source fashion. As a developer and founder of a tech startup, it’s clear to me that this global coalition is the starting point for the great climate technology of tomorrow.” Kshitij Purwar, Founder of Blue Sky Analytics

In addition, former Vice President and climate activist Al Gore is serving as the coalition’s official ambassador and key spokesman. After gaining international prominence for writing and starring in the 2006 documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” Gore also co-won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his environmental activism and contributions to raising global climate awareness.

The group is also looking to expand its network and work with any organization interested in developing or using the tool – indicating that the nine parties currently involved could be just a starting point for a much larger global effort in the future.

Why Is It Important to Track the Sources of CO2 Emissions?

While advancements in climate science have provided a clearer understanding of the greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, tracking the specific sources of emissions has always been a very difficult task.

Traditionally, most countries and industrial sectors have self-reported their own emissions, leading to data that is incomplete, out of date, and in some cases – deliberately inaccurate. This often means that when national and global leaders meet for crucial climate negotiations – they’re working with information that doesn’t tell the whole story.

“The Earth is like a medical patient suffering from a condition called climate change. Trying to fix it with only years-late, self-reported emissions data is like asking a doctor to fix a serious disease with no more information than a list of symptoms the patient had years ago.” Gavin McCormick, Executive Director, WattTime

Historically, we’ve seen that tracking greenhouse gas emissions and making the results available to the public can be a powerful mechanism for change. In 2016, researchers discovered 100,000 metric tons of methane – enough to heat 70,000 American homes for an entire Winter – leaking into the sky from the Aliso Canyon Natural Gas Storage Facility north of LA. After researchers identified the invisible gas using infra-red cameras, the leak received widespread media attention and was quickly sealed off.

Climate TRACE hopes that its newfound transparency and accountability will simplify climate policy negotiations – and drive more investment into areas such as renewable energy and carbon offsetting.

How Does Climate TRACE Work?

The global carbon tracker will combine a number of leading-edge technologies to identify the location and volume of greenhouse gas emissions in unprecedented detail – and all in real-time.

Each of the founding member organizations has advanced technical capabilities in AI or satellite-based monitoring in specific industries, including power generation, oil and gas, agriculture, and shipping. All of these unique skillsets will combine into a single system that openly shares information – and improves the technologies in the process.

As an example, TRACE will track power plant emissions from space using different types of imagery sourced from remote satellites and radar. The system will then “train” AI networks to detect greenhouse gas emissions from an extensive database provided by ground and sea-based sensors, government ministries, power grid operators, corporate reports, and many other sources. This information will then be cross-checked against multiple data sets to verify its accuracy before being released into the public sphere.

When TRACE officially launches next year, the group aims to be able to detect and measure greenhouse gas emissions at any point on the globe – providing a complete picture of global warming activities as they happen.

The group also says that in keeping with its environmental goals, TRACE will not launch any new satellites, but rather source data from those already in orbit. The system will also utilize other forms of remote monitoring, such as transport mobility data, drones, and land- and sea-based sensors.

How Will Satellite Tracking Help to Reduce Emissions?

With detailed knowledge of exactly where greenhouse gasses are coming from, Al Gore says that Climate TRACE will create a new era of unprecedented transparency and accountability.

“…we will equip business leaders and investors, NGOs and climate activists, as well as international, domestic, and local policy leaders with an essential tool to fully realize the economic and societal benefits of a clean energy future, while ensuring that no one — corporation, country, or otherwise — will ever again have the ability to hide or fake their emissions data.” Al Gore, Climate TRACE

With global emissions data made publicly available for the very first time, Climate TRACE aims to help reshape political and corporate policies to take more significant climate action – and accelerate the transition to a carbon-free world. The coalition also claims that its emissions tracking tool will deliver a host of other benefits:

  • Countries will be able to verify that their neighboring nations are working to meet their existing climate agreements.
  • Governments will have the visibility they need to identify companies and organizations that are misrepresenting their emissions data, or take action against those that violate existing climate policies.
  • Environmental groups will be able to track forestry practices that are adding to global warming, such as deforestation, poor land management, and the creation of new fire-risk areas.
  • Renewable energy developers can use emission data to locate new projects in regions that will have the maximum environmental impact.
  • Companies in the private sector will be able to drive innovation in low-carbon technologies, such as renewable energy, battery storage, and advanced power grid optimization.

In November 2021, the United Nations Climate Change Conference – also known as COP26 – will be held in Glasgow, Scotland – after being delayed a full year due to COVID-19. There, national leaders will make expanded commitments to the Paris Agreement, discuss new emissions targets, and analyze the latest scientific research from around the world.

With the goal of launching prior to COP26, Climate TRACE hopes to be a critical factor at these talks, providing the information world leaders need to enact new and effective climate policies – and identify the countries and industries most in need of innovation.

Education Is the Key to Climate Change Action

By measuring global carbon dioxide emissions at a level of detail and accuracy we’ve never seen before, Climate TRACE hopes to unite the international community in the fight against global warming – and leave the big polluters with no place to hide.

And if there’s one key takeaway from all of this – it’s that awareness is the first step in taking action.

As individuals and as companies, we all have the ability to make choices that directly benefit the environment – whether they’re the type of energy we use, our modes of transport, our living and working habits, or the consumer decisions we make every day. And at terrapass, we’re committed to providing simple, cost-effective methods of reducing your carbon footprint in a transparent and accountable way.

We invest in a range of carbon reduction projects all over the country that can allow you to reduce or even eliminate your carbon footprint, in addition to partnering with renewable generators to help accelerate America’s transition to clean, sustainable energy. We also offer a carbon footprint calculator that allows you to measure all of your personal or company emissions – and then take action to restore the balance.

With a global coalition of organizations working together, Climate TRACE aims to provide an unprecedented snapshot of our planet’s health and, if nothing else, looks set to take climate awareness to new heights.

And by understanding exactly when and where all of our global emissions are being created – we can take another large step towards building a cleaner, greener world.

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