Self Reporting Doesn’t Cut it: Why We Need a National GHG Measurement System

Say you’re the Mayor of San Francisco. You’re spending million of dollars every year to increase energy efficiency, install solar panels and encourage the use of electric cars — all in an effort to lower your city’s greenhouse gas emissions, in line with (hypothetical) newly-enacted Federal greenhouse gas reduction guidelines.

Meanwhile, the (hypothetical) Mayor of Sacramento, who doesn’t believe in global warming, and certainly doesn’t believe in spending a dime to reduce the city’s carbon footprint, has completely ignored the GHG guidelines, and then lied about it on self-reported greenhouse gas inventories required by the Feds.

Both cities benefit from reduced emissions, but only one is spending the money to do so. How fair is that?

Not very. Which is why Congress is currently considering a National Greenhouse Gas Observation and Analysis System. The system would consist of a network of hundreds of greenhouse gas monitors that could analyze GHG concentrations on the regional, state, and even local level.

We Trust You. Not.

Right now there are only 12-13 greenhouse gas measuring stations scattered across the country, according to Pieter Tans, a scientist at the Earth System Research Laboratory, in Boulder, Colorado. Internationally, the network is similarly sparse.

So far this paucity of data has not mattered terribly, because current self-reported estimates of fossil fuel emissions are “reasonably good,” according to Tans.

“Are they going to remain trustworthy?,” asks Tans. “I don’t know, because so far there’s no dollar figure attached to these numbers. But pretty soon they are going to be costing hundreds of billions of dollars a year. In such a situation, can we still trust self-reported numbers? I’m not optimistic–unless there is another way to guard the credibility of these numbers.”

Ultimately, such a network should be not only national, but international, so that countries have a way of keeping tabs on each others’ GHG emissions claims.

A Steal at Three Hundred Million Bucks

The system would be similar to the thousands of weather monitoring stations that provide local conditions down to the square mile or smaller. Each station would have a GHG monitoring device that would be connected to the Internet and able to transmit data in real-time to a central computer.

The cost: about $300 million, according to Michael Woelk, CEO of Picarro, a company that manufactures gas measurement devices that could be used in such a system. That’s a paltry sum, he says, given the billions of dollars at stake when companies and governments report their emissions.

Woelk has been arguing for the national GHG system “to anyone willing to listen.”

“Imagine being able to sit down wind of a facility and being able to quantify what is coming out of a facility without ever having to get inside the facility,” said Woelk. With a robust network, “you can see massive methane plumes just driving around, zoom in with Google street view, see there it is: a settling pond, an animal feeding operation. Tthe data leap out at you like you can’t believe.”

Still Waiting on Cap and Trade

Of course, the whole point of a monitoring system would be to enforce a cap and trade, or carbon tax regulatory system that does not yet exist. And so, like so many other innovative technologies, the network is waiting on Congress to act.

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.