This is an excerpt from EERE Network News, a weekly electronic newsletter.

April 21, 2010

Report Examines Ways to Monitor and Verify Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The world has yet to reach a binding international agreement on climate change to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, but a new report from the National Research Council (NRC) has already looked at how independent data may be used to verify the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reported by countries. As noted by the new report, developed countries can generally estimate their GHG emissions fairly accurately just by keeping track of their fossil-fuel consumption and calculating the resulting carbon dioxide emissions. Tracking emissions of other industrial gases that contribute to climate change yields a more precise estimate. But for developing countries, deforestation and agricultural land-use changes may contribute significantly to the GHG emissions, and these sources are harder to track and tally.

The NRC report concludes that developing countries will need financial and technical assistance to build an ongoing capacity to collect, analyze, and report GHG emissions, although the investment needed may be relatively small. The report estimates that significant improvements in the accuracy of emissions reporting from the 10 highest-emitting developing countries would require an investment of only $11 million over five years. The report also calls for independent verification of fossil-fuel use and of actual emissions, including ground-based monitoring systems near cities and other large emission sources. Ground-based monitoring stations could also measure the isotope carbon-14 to distinguish between biomass and fossil-fuel emissions. Such measurements would need to be combined with improved models of how GHGs circulate in the atmosphere.

Taking to the skies, the report notes that high-resolution satellite imagery can be used to estimate deforestation, the growth of new forests, and agricultural land-use changes. Such monitoring would ideally be combined with an improved understanding of how such land-use changes affect emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane. The report also calls for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to build and launch a replacement for the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, which failed at launch in February 2009. Such an observatory could monitor carbon dioxide emissions from cities and power plants and attribute them to individual countries. As noted by the NRC, no other satellite has the same critical combination of abilities, including high precision, a small footprint, and an ability to sense carbon dioxide concentrations near Earth's surface. See the press release from the National Academies and the full report.