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EGU: Keeping an eye on carbon crimes

If there was an eye in the sky keeping watch on our greenhouse gas emissions, what carbon crimes would it reveal?

The ability to measure greenhouse gases from space, soon to become a reality, could answer this question.

Currently, it’s virtually impossible to identify the exact source – and destination – of greenhouse gases, a prominent theme at this year’s European Geosciences Union conference in Vienna.

But, according to scientists speaking today at the conference, this is all set to change within the coming year when two major satellites designed to monitor greenhouse gases will be launched into space.

Due to leave Earth on December 15, the first of these is the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO), a US$300 million-or-so innovation of scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. The Japanese version, known as the Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite, or GOSAT, has an anticipated launch date in January or February 2009.

For a detailed low-down on the satellites and how they will work, see Amanda Haag’s news feature in Nature (subscription) last December. Since then, the scientists have mostly been testing and calibrating the instruments to make sure they work once they’re orbiting the Earth.

Within a year or two, if not sooner, they will enable scientists to identify major sources and sinks or carbon, says Charles Miller, one of the Principal Co-ordinators of the OCO mission. The greenhouse gas measurements taken by the instrument, which will orbit the planet 14.5 times per day, will be three times more precise than any trace gas measurements ever taken from space.

All-in-all, the missions represent an unprecedented effort to collect global climate data from space. While this is fascinating from a scientific perspective, it should also have some interesting political implications by enabling the easy identification of climate culprits.

“If one were to imagine a way to monitor or verify [emissions], then this would be the way to go”, says Miller. For instance, it should quash (or raise, depending on who you’re talking to) fears that nations claiming credits for avoiding deforestation under the Kyoto Protocol will be able to divert the problem elsewhere.

Miller says they often joke that the instrument could detect the greenhouse gas emissions of serious carbon heaveyweights from space. But while the new satellites won’t realistically help reporting on individual carbon crimes, it could act as a ‘big brother’ to keep countries in line with their Kyoto commitments. Personally, I’m curious to know the OCO’s own carbon footprint!

That’s all from me from this year’s European Geosciences Union conference in Vienna. Over and out….

Olive Heffernan

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