In May 2016, more than 60 space agencies to come together for the first time to work on a global framework to estimate and curb GHG emissions (4Max / Shutterstock)
In May 2016, more than 60 space agencies to come together for the first time to work on a global framework to estimate and curb GHG emissions (4Max / Shutterstock)

As the world observes the UN-declared World Space Week from October 4-10, it is important to pay attention to how space technologies are used to characterize climate change, through monitoring the Essential Climate Variables (ECV) in the atmosphere, oceans and land. 

Out of the 50 ECVs being monitored today, 26 – including rising sea level, sea ice extent, and greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere – can only be measured from space. Given the theme of this year’s World Space Week, “Remote Sensing: Enabling our Future,” it is timely to take a closer look at the potential of earth observation satellite systems to act as an independent verification tool for national greenhouse gas (GHG) inventory reports.  These reports are sent by countries  to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) secretariat, and form the basis of determination that a state has met its treaty obligations. The potential availability of such technical capability to measure and attribute human-induced greenhouse gas emissions independently of the state raises interesting questions about how data could potentially be used under the Paris Agreement to name and shame actors, and what institutional models we can rely on to ensure the credibility, acceptability and accessibility of such attributing data.

Political acceptability has led to a “bottom-up” self-reporting system whereby states report their baseline and ongoing GHG emissions to the UNFCCC, through national inventory reports and their efforts towards curbing them. Notwithstanding that current inventory techniques are retrospective and do not include spatial details of emissions within a country or timing of emissions throughout the year, there is also uncertainty in estimates leading to less than accurate inventories. This is exacerbated by the Paris Agreement as all state parties, including developing countries, are now mandated to submit reports regularly with limited experience in doing so. While the uncertainty may be inadvertent or deliberate, GHG inventories require considerable infrastructure and technical capacity so the low quality of national inventories, particularly in developing countries, largely reflects a lack of financial, technical and institutional capacity. This increased uncertainty would potentially affect the global stock take, which seeks to determine collective effort towards the objectives of the Paris Agreement.

Experts have recognized the potential of satellite technology to provide a “top down” system to verify GHG emissions as reported by countries. Several GHG monitoring satellite missions already exist, such as GOSAT  for JAXA (Japan), OCO-2  for NASA (US), and in the near future TANSAT (China), MicroCarb (France) and MERLIN (Germany/France). While these initiatives show great potential, it’s important to note they are not designed to quantify emissions, but rather natural movements of carbon.

But this approach could be set to change.

In May 2016, the New Delhi Declaration came into effect, realizing the intent of more than 60 space agencies to come together for the first time to work on a global framework to establish an international, independent system for estimating and curbing anthropogenic GHG emissions.  Space agencies would need to develop new joint missions or cooperate to cross-calibrate their instruments, cross-validate their measurements against internationally recognized standards and centralize the data from their earth-observing satellites. The ultimate goal would be to achieve global consensus as to the reality of commitments towards climate change mitigation.  

A global system, comprised of contributions from all around the world, would augment existing systems of verification of GHG emissions. However welcome international cooperation would be, it’s a long term project and would require aligning of individual agency missions, budgets and other resources, a process that would involve stakeholders beyond just the space agencies. The most advanced proposal developed by an expert group for the European Commission envisions an operational phase with a level of accuracy compliant to policy needs only by 2030. That timeframe, reflecting the state of technology and international ambition as it stands today, makes the case of a small Canadian company, GHGSat all the more compelling.

GHGSat launched an experimental earth observation satellite in June 2016, with a mission to become the global reference for remote sensing of GHG and air quality gas emissions from industrial sites, using satellite technology. If successful, GHGSat plans to launch a constellation of satellites and would become the first commercial company with the ability to measure GHG emissions from sources on the scale of industrial facilities, using satellites. Essentially, they would be the first remote providers of attribution data. But, with their business model squarely focused on owners of industrial facilities who would be able to monitor all their facilities, local or remote, with a common technology in near real time, what does this mean for global climate change governance? GHGSat is currently working with the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) to investigate the use of its technology to provide more accurate and frequent measurements of fugitive GHG emissions from tailing ponds and mine faces. For COSIA participants Imperial, Canadian Natural, Shell and Suncor, the stated objective of testing this technology is to reduce cost, minimize hazard and get more regular measurements.

GHGSat has its work cut out, to become the global reference, but this ambition raises an interesting proposition. Could non-state actors having access to such data make a positive impact on the climate change regime? With Canada’s commitment to working internationally to address climate change, could we imagine Canada encouraging the development and deployment of global verification technology as an environmental public good, to give citizens around the world the information and power to hold corporations and governments to account?

While uncertainty remains high for all methods of emissions monitoring, developing a “top-down” system could be used to fill the gaps where “bottom-up” capacity is weak and also serve to assist in the verification of national inventory reports. It would take years to mesh the two mechanisms legally and in practice, but the satellite technology would grow in its value to verify. The time is now to deliberate its governance. It is an example of the evolution of satellite technology to a tool that could potentially be used to specifically address a significant issue in climate change governance.  

Given the theme of this year’s World Space Week, it is timely to take a closer look at the potential of earth observation satellite systems to act as an independent verification tool for national greenhouse gas (GHG) inventory reports.
The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.