Can Satellites Save our Planet?

Updated: Apr 21

"As things keep heating up, the world is going to keep needing more of what you guys do at Adexon."
Gavin McCormick, WattTime and Climate TRACE, 18/02/2022

Traditional methods of measuring CO2 emissions are expensive, inefficient stop-gap solutions that can allow rogue businesses to hide their carbon footprint and can take years to compile.


Although necessary for Greenhouse Gas ‘GHG’ reporting, creating net-zero plans relies on accurate, up-to-date information and without it, plans are based on estimations and best- guesses.


Is there a better way?


Measuring the Earth has resulted in clear evidence of the impact of harmful emissions and climate change. These measurements have been unified from multiple sources, including results from the ground, the oceans, and space to compile comprehensive evidence of the damage being done to our planet.


This proof, given to us in the form of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, global average surface temperatures, extreme weather events, changing cryospheres, and rising sea levels and increasingly acidic oceans,[1] has gone on to affect worldwide opinions, forged planet-wide alliances, and given rise to policy changes and global climate summits, also known as COPs.


This most recent summit, COP26 in Glasgow[2], resulted in the implementation of the UK Governments Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener policy, aimed at ensuring the UK hits Net-Zero carbon by 2050.

Climate has no borders poster from COP26 in Glasgow

But despite the increasing need for accuracy, calculating CO2 emissions remains clunky, time-consuming and expensive. However, a coalition named Climate TRACE may be here to revolutionise this process. Founded in May 2019, Climate TRACE is a coalition of 11 non-profit organisations, tech companies, universities, and former Vice President Al Gore, who are

‘harnessing technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), to analyse over 59 trillion bytes of data from more than 300 satellites, more than 11,100 sensors, and numerous additional sources of emissions information from all over the world. The result is a ground-breaking approach to emissions monitoring… one that is independent, transparent, and timely.’[3]

Gavin McCormick, executive director of WattTime, and co-founder of Climate Trace, in his recent TEDTalk explains how technology, currently used to monitor viral memes and funny cat videos, has been applied to the current global climate crisis, enabling all human emissions from all human sources to be monitored and the emissions calculated,[4] in this ‘first-of-its-kind environmental analytics tool.’[5]


How can technology help measure emissions?

Some sources of carbon emissions such as power plants have measuring devices in their stacks, so their carbon output is easily measurable. However, for other sources, in-built monitoring is not possible, or not utilised and therefore could be calculated incorrectly, or ignored altogether.


Climate Trace’s methodology starts with measurements taken from free to access satellites and sensors from the land, sea, and sky. These measurements are then verified by AI algorithms (Artificial Intelligence), which then identifies patterns and provides insights, such as estimated emissions outputs at source so decision-makers have the information they need to limit or stop carbon emissions. This creates a highly detailed map of exactly where all global emissions are coming from and exactly who is producing them, making the invisible, visible.


The coalition of NGOs, non-government organisations, each work independently to measure a specific emissions source, and this data is then collated to create a large-scale, more accurate information source that applies to the whole planet. This includes NGOs measuring key areas such as,

  • WattTime, which measure emissions from Power Plants.

  • Transition Zero, a UK-based company that measures steel mills, including the invisible emissions they produce.

  • Synthetic, which measure factory farm emissions.

  • RMI, which calculates oil and gas emissions from production and refining.

  • Blue Sky Analytics, an Indian-based team that determines emissions from crop, and forest fires.

  • John Hopkins University, which quantifies all road transportation and their respective emissions[6]

This is not a new idea, satellites, sensors, and observatories have been used since 1958 to measure the Earth’s total level of atmospheric GHG concentrations. Stations such as

  • the Mauna Loa Observatory,

  • Japan’s Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite (GOSAT),

  • the United States’ Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2), and

  • the EU’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS)

  • NASAs Landsat 8[7]

  • China’s GAOFEN 6

have all been used individually to gather information relating to Carbon emissions, but the Climate Trace coalition has amalgamated this data, and put it out onto their online portal for anyone, anywhere to utilise. Updated in real-time, and completely impartial.


NASAs Landsat 8

What are the benefits to CO2 emissions being open to all?


It creates a clear cause and effect correlation to inspire change.

Now, as we know, increased awareness of CO2 and other harmful emissions has become the norm. We are increasingly aware of the damage Climate Change has and will continue to do, to the planet, and by measuring the emissions globally, we can correlate this with the changes we have seen, or are beginning to see, around the world.


Take rising sea levels for example. Global warming, one symptom of Climate Change, has produced an overall temperature rise of approximately 1.1°C since 1880[8], causing global mean sea levels to rise in two ways:

  1. First, glaciers and ice sheets worldwide are melting and adding water to the ocean.

  2. Second, the volume of the ocean is expanding as the water warms.[9]

Using data from across the world, scientists have been able to demonstrate the unequivocal truth about how the planet is warming, how this then affects sea levels, and therefore how it can affect the creatures who live on the planet- as we see in the many images of sad, emaciated polar bears struggling to find sea ice to hunt from,[10] or on the bodies of lethargic, oil-soaked seabirds.


Increased, clear use of data exposing harmful emissions levels increases transparency to the public, businesses, and governments and allows them to see which activities create the most harm. This in turn allows for changes to take place to remove, or drastically lessen emissions outputs.


Mother polar bear with two cubs, sitting on the ice.

It allows for all nations, countries, and businesses to make changes.

Free-access information also allows for all nations, countries, and businesses, wealthy or otherwise to have the same access and therefore enact changes to lessen their environmental footprint. This reinforces the whole-world approach needed for serious change that halts the expected peak of future global temperatures.

Emissions cannot be hidden, ignored, or under-reported.

Similarly, increased transparency has removed the ability to hide, ignore, or under-report vast emissions sources. P&G for example, when only reporting on Scope 1 & 2 emissions, incorrectly recorded baseline emissions at 4.3 million metric tonnes, a number that grows to nearly 215 million metric tonnes when including Scope 3 emissions in calculations,[11] an option that real-time infrared monitoring will remove altogether.


It also allows countries to find unexpected sources of increased greenhouse gas emissions, such as reservoirs, responsible for 800-million metric tonnes, or 1.3%, of total greenhouse gas emissions, or rice-farming, which accounts for 1-2% of total manmade greenhouse gas emissions.[12]

By exposing emissions from these rich sources of greenhouse gases, action can then be taken to reduce them, decreasing future damage.


Beautiful lake surrounded by trees and snowy mountains.

Image from Pexels.com, courtesy of Jaime Reimer


As we continue into an increasingly technological world, the relationship between man and machine can be part of the reason we manage to slow and reverse Climate Change.


Big data, satellites, sensors, and AI are becoming cheaper to use, and easier to access, so new ways of observing, measuring, and calculating emissions open up to us, as with Climate Trace. It can help educate, evidence, persuade, and inspire, making the truth universally known, and hopefully change the future of our world for the better.

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[1] Climate Change Committee, ‘Measuring a warming world,’ <https://www.theccc.org.uk/what-is-climate-change/measuring-a-warming-world-2/> 02.02.2022

[2] Climate has no Border COP26 campaign poster, taken from BBC Newsround, ‘COP26: What is it and why is it happening in Glasgow in 2021?’ <https://www.bbc.co.uk/newsround/51372486> 02.02.2022

[3] ClimateTrace, ‘Our Story,’ <https://climatetrace.org/our-story> 02.02.2022

[4] Gavin McCormick, ‘Tracking the whole world’s carbon emissions with satellites and AI,’ from the TED Countdown series, uploaded to YouTube on 22.01.2022, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zaTH7LnyCdE&list=PLOGi5-fAu8bHbbepxw2rp2lI29SC1DDH_&index=7>

[5] Time.com, ‘Best Inventions of 2020: The Climate Cop, Climate Trace,’ published 19.11.2020 by J.R. Sullivan, <https://time.com/collection/best-inventions-2020/5911362/climate-trace/>

[6] Image taken from Climate Trace.org homepage, <https://www.climatetrace.org/> 03.02.2022

[7] Image from SVS.GSFC. NASA.GOV, ‘Landsat 8 (aka LDCM) Spacecraft Animations and Still Images,’ published 05.10.2011, courtesy of NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab, <https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/10812>

[8] Earthobservatory.nasa.gov, ‘Global temperatures,’ <https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/world-of-change/global-temperatures> 03.02.2022

[9] Report hosted on Climate.org, ‘Climate Change: Global Sea Level,’ by Rebecca Lindsey, published 14.08.2020, updated 21.12.2021, <https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climate-change-global-sealevel#:~:text=What's%20causing%20sea%20level%20to,expanding%20as%20the%20water%20warms>

[10] Image from CNN.com, ‘Most polar bears could struggle to survive in the Arctic by 2100, study finds,’

By Drew Kann, updated 21.07.2020, courtesy of Roy Mangersnes/ cover image/ AP.

[11] NRDC.org, ‘Corporate Honesty and Climate Change: Time to Own Up and Act’ by Joshua Axelrod, published 26.02. 2019, <https://www.nrdc.org/experts/josh-axelrod/corporate-honesty-and-climate-change-time-own-and-act>

[12] Data from CNN.com, ’10 surprising sources of greenhouse gases,’ by Anna Fletcher, published 09.12.2020, <https://edition.cnn.com/2019/06/03/world/gallery/surprising-sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions-intl/index.html>

Cover image from Pexels.com, courtesy of Markus Spiske.

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