Tracking Emissions with Remote Sensing, with Gavin McCormick

On the left, a nighttime view of a factory, with plumes of white being emitted from smokestacks. On the right, a different factory, shown during the day, with smokestacks emitting white plumes.

By incorporating the latest satellite technology, government agencies would be able to accurately and conveniently monitor factory emissions, day and night. Image credit: Aleksandr Popov on Unsplash and JuniperPhoton on Unsplash

Script & Audio by: Olivia Rounsaville  |  Blurb by: Ashley Carter

The Need to Accurately Quantify Emissions

As we begin to come to terms with the reality of the fossil fuel industry’s role in climate change, many policymakers are looking towards market-based mechanisms to curb the level of emissions released by harmful polluters. Market-based mechanisms include taxing pollution directly (through a carbon tax) or implementing a cap and trade system. Under the Clean Air Act and other laws, power plants must report air emissions from their operations. Unfortunately, not all emissions are reported or fully monitored, including emissions of greenhouse gases, leaving regulators with incomplete information. Without accurate reports on emissions, policymakers cannot create effective policy. Some companies may use offsets to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions from their operations. However, many offsets have proven to be ineffective, resulting in market inefficiencies and hindering our ability to effectively enact climate policy. To gain a more accurate picture of climate emissions, climate scientists and others are beginning to create innovative strategies to determine factories’ GHG emissions without relying on the polluter themselves through the use of satellite data. 

A Bird’s Eye View Solution

Satellite imagery provides a potentially publicly accessible way to view emissions data, increase emissions transparency, and put pressure on polluters to change their behavior. Organizations like WattTime, a non-profit artificial intelligence firm, have begun to train AI to use satellite imagery data and emissions numbers from historical data in order to track global air pollution across different sources. After images have been taken, WattTime applies various algorithms to detect the levels of emissions based on visible smoke, heat, and NO2. WattTime started out of Automated Emissions Reduction (AER) software, which uses machine learning to figure out the least-carbon intensive time to use electricity and automatically switches appliances to use electricity during those times of day. This new method of obtaining emissions data has many potential applications towards fighting climate change.

Why It’s Worth Considering

Tracking real-time emissions based on satellite imagery has a variety of benefits in achieving tangible pollution reduction. Climate policy and action are dependent upon accurate reports of emissions levels. Data from satellite imagery provides independent data making it more difficult to underreport emissions. More accurate and independent emissions data will incentivize greater focus and action on mitigation and will make enforcement of emissions limits easier.  

Beyond the potential advantages for climate policy, public access to data is essential in informing consumers on the impacts of their individual choices. Providing people with a better sense of the environmental impacts of the goods they consume can change consumer choices.  Greater transparency around emissions can thus help make climate policy more effective. 

Satellite imagery data can also be used to identify areas that may be well located to support renewable energy development and to monitor the impacts of those developments. Additionally, data taken from satellite imagery can help identify sources of raw materials that have lower and higher environmental impact, potentially assisting in achieving supply chain decarbonization. 

The Reality

Although remote sensing has great advantages, there are still important challenges to note. In terms of the mechanics of satellite imagery, accuracy can be hindered due to limited temporal and spatial resolution, high levels of cloudiness, and increased vegetation that may block images. The number and configuration of satellites also impacts the data. Further, it remains to be seen whether governments will try and block the use of satellite data in their jurisdictions.  

About Our Guest

Gavin McCormick is the co-founder of WattTime and executive director of Climate TRACE. As both an entrepreneur and academic, he is currently working towards developing efficient, low-cost ways to assist in the transition to renewable energy. McCormick is hopeful that the use of satellite imagery data can mark a positive turning point in the fight against the climate crisis.

Further Reading


Transcript

Ethan: I’m Ethan Elkind, and you’re listening to Climate Break. Climate solutions in a hurry. Today’s proposal: using satellite photos and artificial intelligence to track where greenhouse gas emissions are coming from. We caught up with Gavin McCormick at the UN Climate Conference in Dubai. He’s the co-founder of Climate Trace, a non-profit building an open inventory of global greenhouse gas emissions. He talked about how this technology can hold polluters accountable.

Mr. McCormick: We use a lot of machine learning to essentially look at satellite photos of power plants, ships, planes, factories, match that up with the historical record of how much they were polluting when, and you can train an AI to be surprisingly accurate at a pretty good estimate of the emissions of nearly any facility on the planet. 

Ethan: Climate Trace is using this technology to track every large-scale emitter on the planet, so that government leaders, companies, and the public can understand their carbon footprint. They’re already finding surprising results.

Mr. McCormick: If you were to add up the corporate emissions reporting of every company worldwide that voluntarily reports on emissions and you are comparing year over year, it looks like emissions are going down. But what we see from space when we look at actual facilities is emissions aren’t going down. The assets that emit are being offloaded from those companies that disclose their emissions to other companies that don’t disclose their emissions.

Ethan: As Climate Trace makes that data available, policymakers and the public can use it to press for change.  

Mr. McCormick: There haven’t previously been inventories of the emissions of companies that don’t disclose their emissions. Now that we can see from space and track them, my hope is that there’ll be more pressure on those companies to clean up their act. 

Ethan: To view the data and learn more about how Climate Trace is tracking greenhouse gas emissions, visit climatebreak.org.

Tracking Emissions with Remote Sensing, with Gavin McCormick