We Can Solve the Climate Crisis by Tracing Pollution Back to Its Sources. A New Coalition Will Make It Possible.
Today we launch ‘Climate TRACE’ — a coalition building a tool to track human-caused greenhouse gas emissions from every corner of the planet.
This post is jointly authored by Al Gore, former Vice President of the United States and Gavin McCormick, founder and executive director of WattTime.
Today, just like every day before it, humans collectively spewed 152 million tons of planet-warming pollution into our thin shell of atmosphere as if it were an open sewer. The extra heat energy trapped in our atmosphere by these accumulated greenhouse gases (GHGs) is equal to what would be released by 500,000 Hiroshima-class atomic bombs detonating on Earth every single day.
The consequences of that extra heat energy are growing startlingly clearer. 2019 was the second hottest year on record (just behind 2016) and 2020 is likely to be the warmest ever. Stronger cyclonic storms batter our coasts; “rain bombs” lead to more destructive floods and mudslides; deeper and longer droughts cut agricultural output; devastating wildfires are the new norm; sea levels are rising more rapidly as the ice of Greenland and Antarctica melts faster; and the list goes on. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s leading scientific body on the climate crisis, we need to cut global GHG emissions roughly in half by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2050 to avoid the worst effects.
With our world in a moment of upheaval, this can feel like a daunting and overwhelming challenge. How will we do it in time?
Today, we are honored to announce that a powerful new tool will soon be joining the climate fight. Along with us — Al Gore and Gavin McCormick of WattTime — we join leading organizations Blue Sky Analytics, CarbonPlan, Carbon Tracker, Earthrise Alliance, Hudson Carbon, Hypervine, OceanMind, and Rocky Mountain Institute as founding members to unveil Climate TRACE, a coalition creating a high-tech solution to independently detect emissions and where they’re coming from, everywhere in the world, in real time. It’s a feat that’s never before been possible — until now.
What is Climate TRACE?
Climate TRACE — which stands for Tracking Real-time Atmospheric Carbon Emissions — comprises organizations from the tech sector that have pioneered some of the most-powerful software-based emissions-monitoring solutions in the world, in part using artificial intelligence (AI) and remote sensing. As the climate crisis deepens and our technology advances, we felt the time was ripe to join together and put these resources to work in powerful new ways.
Our first-of-its-kind global coalition will leverage advanced AI, satellite image processing, machine learning, and land- and sea-based sensors to do what was previously thought to be nearly impossible: monitor GHG emissions from every sector and in every part of the world. Our work will be extremely granular in focus — down to specific power plants, ships, factories, and more. Our goal is to actively track and verify all significant human-caused GHG emissions worldwide with unprecedented levels of detail and speed.
Through Climate TRACE, we will equip business leaders and investors, NGOs and climate activists, as well as international, domestic, and local policy leaders with an essential tool to fully realize the economic and societal benefits of a clean energy future, while ensuring that no one — corporation, country, or otherwise — will ever again have the ability to hide or fake their emissions data. Next year, every country in the world will gather in Glasgow, Scotland, to enhance their commitments to the Paris Agreement and raise collective ambition in line with what the world’s scientists tell us is necessary. We at the Climate TRACE coalition hope to support these COP26 climate talks with the most thorough and reliable data on emissions the world has ever seen.
Why is global emissions monitoring necessary?
To move faster on solutions to the climate crisis, we need a better system to track emissions; we can only manage what we can measure. And unfortunately, the current state of the art is a bottom-up system that relies heavily, no matter how well implemented, on infrequent self-reporting by countries and companies, using a patchwork variety of methods. A lack of dependable, independent, third-party verification can create uncertainty on whether the data are reliable and accurate. And the long time lags in reporting reduces the ability to make that information actionable. Countless countries, companies, and leaders worldwide want to solve the climate crisis, but lack the tools to do so quickly and effectively.
Climate TRACE will reveal the “where,” “when,” and “who” behind GHG emissions. Why does that matter? It allows us to…
● Verify numbers and ensure everyone is getting the truth: Self-reported data can make it too easy for dishonest polluters to break the rules that more-honest players are following. Others desire better data but lack the capacity to measure emissions, leaving some players with nothing but rough estimates. But when monitored by global sensor networks including satellites and ground- and sea-based instruments, all connected to a purpose-built AI engine, emissions have nowhere to hide. This new machine learning/AI tool will make it possible for everyone — from scientists and regulators, to the news media and citizen activists, to investors and business leaders — to see exactly who is responsible for GHG pollution in real time, where it’s coming from, and whether the amounts from each significant source are increasing or decreasing. We believe this can lead to a new era of transparency and accountability.
● Support the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement: Nearly every country in the world committed to major emissions reductions to keep global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. We know that better monitoring will help countries hold each other — and emitters within their own borders — accountable. Independent, global monitoring available to all can help.
● Empower companies, consumers, and investors to do good: Despite a few government leaders denying the climate crisis, most understand and accept the science and the need to act, and thousands of corporate and subnational actors are already slashing their carbon footprints in line with the Paris Agreement. From companies looking to select cleaner manufacturing suppliers, to investors seeking to divest from polluting industries, to consumers making choices about which businesses to patronize, one thing is clear: a reliable way to measure where emissions are coming from is necessary. Climate TRACE will empower all of these actors.
● Spot opportunities to save money by going green: The majority of fossil-fuel plants around the world are already less profitable than wind or solar power, and companies and governments deserve to know which ones. Additionally, companies interested in investing in carbon offset markets to support sustainable forestry and regenerative agriculture need a way to verify that each project genuinely reduces carbon. Even many oil and gas companies are actively seeking to reduce leakage of highly polluting methane emissions into the atmosphere, but they need better ways to detect those leaks. Climate TRACE will make it all possible.
How will the technology work?
In the era of coronavirus, we’ve seen that it’s one thing to spot the overall consequences of the pandemic, but it’s far more actionable to immediately know exactly who is infected and where they are, in order to get them medical care and trace the people with whom they have been in contact. Similarly, it’s one thing to measure the global concentration of CO2 and other GHGs, but the ability to immediately trace where emissions are coming from and in what amounts provides information that allows us to act.
So, why is this difficult? Some emissions, such as methane, are relatively easy to spot with the right type of camera. But others, including CO2, are a common background part of our planet’s atmosphere even under healthy conditions. And worse, natural fluctuations of CO2 occur all the time. That’s why it’s long been possible for climate scientists to measure total CO2 in the atmosphere, but tracing where it comes from has been a whole different ballgame.
Solving these types of problems requires an integrated AI framework — something we’ll explore more in future posts. But to give you a sneak peek: the Climate TRACE system takes in many different types of imagery (e.g., visible light, infrared) from many different remote sensing networks (e.g., satellites, radar) all over the world. The AI then can be “trained” to spot even extremely complex and subtle hints of what pollution looks like by using countless records of when, where, and how emissions came about in the past, collected from ground- and sea-based physical emissions sensors, government environment ministries, corporate disclosure forms, and other sources.
Then, all of this information can be matched and verified against multiple redundant data sets from different actors, so we can be sure it’s reliable. It’s very similar to how AI experts “train” self-driving cars to make sense of and mutually fact-check their many different types of sensors. But this time, we’re applying these well-understood Big Data techniques to a problem that affects us all: the climate crisis.
What makes Climate TRACE possible?
We’ve known for years that a project like Climate TRACE would make a massive difference in the fight against the climate crisis, and we’ve both been exploring the topic of global emissions monitoring for a long time. But our announcement comes now because we’ve hit a crucial turning point: it’s finally possible.
Solving a scientific problem this complex requires many different advanced components. For example, developing a smaller version of this project to measure power plant emissions required combining imagery from multiple satellite constellations (like the European Space Agency’s Sentinel 2 mission), AI algorithms from experts in computer vision (such as Pixel Scientia Labs), data pipeline engineering (Google.org), power plant databases (World Resources Institute), remote sensing (Valence Strategic), power systems modeling (WattTime), weather adjustments and power plant cooling systems (Carbon Tracker), and many more features and collaborators. And that was just one sector!
Recent years have seen an explosion of technological advancements at various organizations capable of individual pieces of the puzzle. We’ve found the growing urgency of the climate crisis has inspired more and more organizations to collaborate more actively than ever before. That’s already made it possible to build prototypes of emissions-monitoring technologies we hadn’t expected to be possible until 2025 or later. Now, we’re unveiling the project to the world in order to start moving even faster.
Where are we headed?
We envision a future in which low- and zero-carbon energy is the norm, where every company has the resources it needs to be successful without endangering the environment, and every leader has the tools to confidently make the best choices possible for both people and planet. We believe Climate TRACE will be an integral part of making that future become reality, and we’re getting right to work, with the goal of releasing our first full emissions report and real-time visualization well before the UN’s COP26 climate conference in 2021.
Make no mistake, we know this is an ambitious effort with an aggressive timeline. But our species can’t wait until 2030 to get this problem right, and we don’t have to. If nine organizations working together can bring the climate action timeline forward by years, think about what dozens of organizations working together can achieve.
So, as we launch the Climate TRACE coalition today, we issue a call to action: If you’re working in a field that touches on emissions monitoring — whether you have AI expertise, satellite sensor networks, or other global sensor or emissions data networks — we want to hear from you. We know that collaboration and participation are critical to getting this right. The climate crisis threatens us all, and the scale of the problem demands more of us. Let’s get to work.
Former US Vice President Al Gore is the cofounder and chairman of Generation Investment Management, and the founder and chairman of The Climate Reality Project, a nonprofit devoted to solving the climate crisis. He is also a senior partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and a member of Apple Inc.’s board of directors. He is the subject of the documentary movie An Inconvenient Truth, which won two Oscars in 2006, and a second documentary in 2017, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. In 2007, Gore was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, along with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for “informing the world of the dangers posed by climate change.”
Gavin McCormick is the founder and executive director of WattTime, the nonprofit tech startup that first developed Automated Emissions Reduction (AER) technology and which launched an initiative in 2019, with support from Google.org, to measure GHG emissions from all the world’s power plants. WattTime’s mission is to make energy choice a reality for everyone everywhere — a charter Gavin and the team work hard every day to deliver.