Push for satellite system to track CO2 levels

NEW YORK • The world's space agencies are calling for a new generation of satellites that would be precise enough to map greenhouse gas emissions from individual nations.

Their goal is to replace decades of rough estimates with advanced monitoring of what has become one of the world's foremost concerns.

The plan, based on a growing body of research in space sensors, is delicate politically because the global system could verify or cast doubt on emission reports from the 196 member states of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was adopted in 1992.

If built, the system could serve as an independent way to measure greenhouse gases and encourage lax countries to better comply with abatement goals.

The recent Paris accord, which calls for the "verification and certification of emission reductions", essentially gave the plan a diplomatic stamp of approval.

The proposed system of satellites, six to eight in all, would be in orbit by 2030 to map clouds of carbon dioxide, the invisible gas linked to climate change.

Rough estimates put the system's cost at around US$5 billion (S$6.86 billion). It would resemble the global fleet of weather satellites that observe water clouds.

Officials call the undertaking crucial for better dealing with aspects of climate change linked to civilisation's waste gases.

"It's what we have to do if planet Earth is to be saved," said head of France's space agency Jean-Yves Le Gall, who leads the initiative. "It's a consciousness shared by the heads of all the space agencies."

The sense of urgency behind the satellite plan arises in part because developing countries a decade ago surpassed industrial nations as global emitters of carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel combustion. Their estimated share stands at 60 per cent.

Starting late last year, space agency leaders from China, India and other developing countries and industrial powers, including the United States, seized on such analyses to begin arguing for the satellite fleet. At a meeting in New Delhi last month, they issued a draft public declaration.

"An international independent way of estimating emission changes," it said, "would create a level playing field." On Monday, France's space agency - known as CNES, for Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales - based in Paris said it had sent a penultimate draft for approval to the world's space agencies, 67 in all.

The French agency added that it expects a final declaration by next Monday.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 11, 2016, with the headline 'Push for satellite system to track CO2 levels'. Subscribe