Could a new Greenhouse gas measurement system bring clarity to UN climate talks?

By John Parnell

The developers of a new emissions measuring system are confident it can help efforts at the UN climate talks to accurately record nations’ greenhouse gas inventories.

Many of the world’s governments have legally binding commitments to cut their CO2 output. Many more are working toward voluntary targets to do the same. But there is currently no effective system in place to actually measure their progress.

Talks to rectify this situation are ongoing at UN level – but as Ray Weiss of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography observes, currently emission reductions are “like going on a diet without ever weighing yourself.”

At present, heavy emitting sectors report their estimated emissions. To prolong (stretch) the dieting analogy, its like estimating your weight based on last year’s supermarket receipts.

Astrium Services is looking to fill a gap in the market and hope its new greenhouse gas tracking bus could be an answer.

Inside Astrium's Greenhouse-Gas-Measuring-mobile.

The bus is equipped with sensors to detect carbon dioxide and methane, the two most important greenhouse gases, at street level. When this data is combined with its GPS position, it can map peaks and troughs in climate forcing gas across an entire city.

Most bespoke buses with big screens and white leather sofas installed are probably ferrying boybands and billionaires around the country, this one could be the crucial missing component in the UN climate talks.

Florent Kone of Astrium Services gave me a tour around central London’s major tourist traps in a bus with the above mod-cons, plus its highly sensitive methane and CO2 sensors mounted on the roof.

Astrium trialled three of the four components of its Greenhouse gas (GHG) Emissions Measurement Service during the Olympics as it gears up for launch next year.

A combination of data from sensors mounted on cars and planes, together with fixed land monitoring stations and eventually satellite information, will provide the first real-time data on CO2 output.

Measuring London’s emissions (August 7 2012)

As we cruise through Piccadilly Circus, in the heart of London, our progress is tracked on a Google Earth map.

Two real-time bar graphs chase our position on the map tracking the readings outside the bus. The CO2 levels shoot up while we wait at traffic lights and again as we join the buses on Regent Street.

When all the data is combined, it could provide a powerful stimulus to the international climate treaty process.

In South Africa last year, the 194 parties signed up to the UN’s climate agency agreed to begin work an a global deal that would see all countries make legally binding commitment to cut their greenhouse gas emissions in 2015 with the deal coming into force in 2020.

The Astrium Greenhouse Gas measuring bus. The instruments are housed in the bulges on the roof and are sensitive enough to detect leaking methane from a bin.

Astrium is using these dates as the timeline for its own launch. It will begin selling the service next year and by 2020, it hopes to have a network of satellites monitoring global emissions.

In the world of the UN climate change negotiations it is a process referred to as Measurement, Reporting and Verification (MRV), which effectively means accurate accounting on a country’s reporting.

Reservations over the MRV process are routinely held up as a concern by nation at the UN talks as a reason for their reservations about committing to cut carbon.

Kone is confident that Astriums’s package of data will end that. The company is talking to a number of government’s interested in more precise CO2 emissions data.

Parties to the Kyoto Protocol who are already constrained by legally binding emissions targets are at the head of the queue.

“China is keen to know more about what it is emitting too but it is uncomfortable with the communications side of things. It is launching its own CO2 monitoring satellite,” says Kone.

With a Chinese CO2 data on the way, it is easy to see the attraction of a second set of data to the US and the EU.

Intel for traders

Governments are not the only market for the data however.

“It’s surprising that people trade billion of dollars worth of carbon credits constantly but there’s no data about carbon,” says Kone touching on another potential market. Carbon markets currently rely on inventories two years old. Real time data could transform the sector.

The company could also leverage its relationship with fellow EADS aerospace and defence group member Airbus.

In the long-term the two firms are in talks about the possibility of equipping Airbus planes with greenhouse gas monitoring equipment. This would create a huge wealth of available data to add to the ground stations, vehicle mounted and satellite monitoring. A test flight using an Airbus A380 is in the offing.

The different sensors provide data on different scales. The vehicle-mounted devices are sensitive enough to pick up a spike in methane from a kerbside bin. This can help urban planners to identify CO2 and methane hotspots as well as tracking how they spread.

Astrium is a €5bn company and it believes this new technology will be hugely attractive to countries around the world.

Once this and other accurate measuring systems are in place countries will have fewer reasons to point to uncertainty as a reason for inaction on emission cuts.

Meanwhile nations with binding commitments will no longer get away with sucking in their stomachs. The truth will out.

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