Coming out of COP21, there is a lot of excitement and a number of questions. At the very least, there are plenty of good intentions, committed to paper, with voluntary targets that 196 countries say they will strive to achieve. Can they do it? Will it be enough? Perhaps most important of all: How much is still unknown?
As one who spends a substantial amount of time investigating and writing about the numerous solutions pouring out of research labs and garages alike, it’s easy to be optimistic. On the other hand, climate science is careful to remind us of numerous positive feedback loops, lurking like dark shadows, that could make things much worse than what the consensus expects. So, while the problem could very well get worse, the prospects for addressing it could also likely get much better.
One thing that most people agree on is that it would be helpful if the carbon emission level could be easily measured in a way that allows for verification on a location-by-location basis. A recent report on EU energy governance, produced by the British House of Lords, says that “EU-wide binding 2030 renewables targets will not be delivered unless it is backed-up by a monitoring and enforcement mechanism that acts as a guarantor for the agreement.”
The House goes on to state: “Without an effective, transparent, accountable, and legitimate governance mechanism, the significance of the target is considerably diminished, the incentive to Member States to be ambitious is weakened, and any prospect of achieving the overall objective is jeopardized.”
It was Peter Drucker who said, “you can’t manage what you can’t measure,” and that seems to apply here.
So, how are we to go about measuring carbon emissions?
Climate Alliance developed a carbon-monitoring tool with the Swiss company Ecospeed and Germany’s B&SU. Rather than an actual instrument, this is an online database containing energy and CO2 inventories, developed for specific location for estimating purposes. The tool is available in Germany and Switzerland.
The best way to directly measure CO2 could be from outer space. Space-based verification could take advantage of dedicated satellites like NASA’s proposed Orbiting Carbon Observatory to collect accurate measurements from countries across the globe to ensure whether or not they are meeting their targets. A study performed at Los Alamos National Laboratory, using ground-based surrogates, demonstrates that this approach is feasible.
But one company that worked for years in space-based instrumentation for weather satellites, as well as emissions monitoring, has developed a solution that is much closer to Earth.
Harris Corp., a communications, defense and information technology company, brought out some new tricks from its recently formed Environmental Systems Division — pulled from its broad portfolio of technical capabilities, which includes satellite, airborne and ground-based instruments.
At COP21 in Paris, the company unveiled GreenLite: a laser-based system mounted on tall buildings capable of measuring the CO2 concentration in the air above the city in real time (video). The lasers use light at a specific wavelength that is absorbed by CO2. By comparing the amount of light leaving the transmitters with the light received by detectors across the city, the system can determine the amount of CO2 in the air. The technology was developed with funding from DOE and NIST and in partnership with AER.
Watching the levels rise and fall as rush hours come and go and power plants respond to demand peaks is a bit like watching the city breathe, said Eric Webster, VP of Harris Environmental Systems.
Because cities represent such a substantial portion of carbon emissions, systems like this can be extremely useful for monitoring and enforcement. Prior to this demonstration, Harris installed a system to monitor a carbon sequestration site in Decatur, Illinois.
Image courtesy of Harris Corp.