Coalition uses AI, satellites to monitor carbon emissions in real time

Nine organizations from around the world and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore are undertaking an initiative that will use artificial intelligence (AI), satellite image processing, machine learning, and other remote sensing technologies to monitor worldwide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in real time. 

This collaboration aims to track human-caused emissions to specific sources in real time, independently and publicly. The combined project will be known as Climate TRACE (Tracking Real-time Atmospheric Carbon Emissions).

While climate scientists today have a detailed understanding of the total GHGs in the atmosphere, efforts to trace where those emissions come from have lagged far behind. Tracking GHG emissions from nearly every major human-emitting activity worldwide, such as power plants, factories, large ships, and more, is an enormously difficult undertaking, but advanced AI and machine learning will now make it possible for the first time.

In many countries and sectors the standard is that emitters self-report their own emissions, then manually compile the results. Consequently, many governments, companies, and scientists must rely on data that can be years out of date and sometimes subject to deliberate under-reporting. The resulting data often provides only incomplete, high-level summary information at best.

“The world has reached a tipping point on the climate crisis. In order to achieve a zero-carbon future, we need a comprehensive accounting of where pollution is coming from,” said Vice President Al Gore. 

“We are excited that Climate TRACE holds the promise to revolutionize global efforts to measure and reduce emissions across every sector of society, creating a new era of unprecedented transparency and accountability. Our vision is to equip business, policy, and citizen leaders with an essential tool to fully realize the economic and job-creation opportunities of the Sustainability Revolution.”

The potential applications for such a system are numerous, for example:

  • For scientists and technologists building emerging emissions-reducing technologies: the tool will accelerate private-sector innovation in advanced carbon optimization techniques in forestry, renewable energy, and power grid management.
  • For sustainability teams at private-sector companies, investors, and entire industries: the tool will offer crucial visibility to more-easily and accurately meet emissions-reduction goals, direct sustainable investments (and divestments), and assess risk.
  • For countries measuring emissions-reduction progress for the Paris Agreement commitments: the tool may be useful in independently verifying measurements, or supporting emissions monitoring by countries without the resources to produce such detailed, up-to-date inventories.
  • For any organizations polluting illegally who might seek to keep their emissions hidden from public view: the tool will provide pioneering transparency and validation to make it easier for governments that have enacted environmental laws to immediately identify any activities that violate those laws.

Climate TRACE has developed a very basic working prototype and is now focusing on iterating and improving the tool. Like many AI projects, the tool will continuously improve as the team adds more data and works out more sophisticated algorithms. The group is cautiously optimistic that it will release the first version in the summer of 2021.

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