Spring  >>  2010  


A Close Look At Climate Change Policy


A Close Look At Climate Change Policy

There is debate growing – a re-visitation, if you will – of “open skies,” but this time centered on the transparency of monitoring Earth’s complex and dynamic environment. Over the last several decades, NASA and an international retinue of nations have lofted Earth remote sensing satellites – each imbued with powerful new capabilities. Collectively, these spacecraft have churned out a richly detailed depiction of atmospheric processes.

Leonard David

By Leonard David
Research Associate
Secure World Foundation

Needless to say, while that picture is tricky to interpret, the influx of data offers the potential of a long term, detailed record of Earth’s atmosphere as it undergoes climate change.

What is coming into sharp, satellite-based focus is the classic discourse regarding “transparency” and “national sovereignty” – clearly, a been-here, done-that-before type of conversation – but in this context, a key discussion item today among nations.

OCO Failure and Plans

In many ways, this issue was brought to the forefront by failure: The Antarctic-ocean dumping of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO), after its Taurus XL rocket boost from Vandenberg Air Force Base went awry in February of last year. OCO was designed to provide proof-of-concept for spaceborne technologies to monitor greenhouse gas emissions, as well as to crank out baseline emissions data.

Given OCO’s untimely and watery demise, researchers at NASA and elsewhere came to grips with how best to record atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in light of the mishap. For one, NASA’s proposed new budget for fiscal year 2010 will allow the agency to try again to hurl an Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 into Earth orbit. Doing so is deemed critical to the understanding of Earth’s carbon cycle and its effect on climate change.

Language accompanying the FY10 appropriation for NASA’s Earth Science Directorate includes: “Also included within the funds provided for other mission and data analysis, the conference agreement provides $6,000,000 for pre-phase A and pilot initiatives for the development of a carbon monitoring system…”

What is now proposed is an OCO “Carbon Copy,” a spacecraft similar in design and loaded with instruments akin to its lost-to-sea predecessor. The intention is to launch it as soon as possible, perhaps by autumn of 2011, to relay data viewed as critical to the support of national policy initiatives. Indeed, it was OCO that was billed by NASA as the first satellite built exclusively to map CO2 levels on Earth and help scientists understand how humanity’s “gift” of greenhouse gas is impacting global climate change.

Figure 1. This is an artist’s concept of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL.

Figure 1. This is an artist’s concept of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL.

Speaking to Congress last year, Ralph Cicerone, President of the National Academy of Sciences, made note that human activities now emit more than 32 billion tons of CO2; into the atmosphere each year. And the annual emissions rate has increased steadily since the dawn of the Industrial Age.
Cicerone explained that over half of this CO2 has been absorbed by natural sinks on land and in the ocean; the remainder stays in the atmosphere. Measurements made by the international carbon cycle science community have substantially improved the understanding of CO2 sources and sinks, and their relationship to climate change. Cicerone added that the nature and location of CO2 sources and sinks, as well as the processes that will affect their future evolution, continue to be limited by a lack of high-precision global measurements of atmospheric CO2.

But there’s a bit of dire news in a letter last year to NASA chief Charles Bolden from the Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate of the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academies. Last July, in dealing with the OCO failure, the prestigious board noted:

“Space-based monitoring of emissions to support a greenhouse gas reduction treaty has received little attention by U.S. scientists and the government. The committee’s analysis suggests that existing measurement methods alone are insufficient to independently verify reported emissions trends. Although OCO was not designed for treaty monitoring and verification, it would have provided baseline emission data from large fossil fuel sources as well as essential tests of the engineering designs and measurement concepts required to develop a robust capability for monitoring emissions from space.”

Monitoring Agreements

While the global community is deep in thought regarding international climate accords, there’s urgent need to ponder how best to screen those agreements – even in terms of national, and global security.

But how does satellite monitoring stack up on the world stage in terms of others stealing a look at another nation’s greenhouse gas output – what some scribes have termed as “eco-spying”? Helping to kick-start this touchy dialogue has been U.S. President Barack Obama and his spotlight on using satellite technology to see if nations stick to carbon emissions commitments.

Figure 2. The Orbiting Carbon Observatory, pre-launch, now lost due to rocket failure. Image courtesy of Orbital Sciences Corporation.

Figure 2. The Orbiting Carbon Observatory, pre-launch, now lost due to rocket failure. Image courtesy of Orbital Sciences Corporation.

President Obama raised this matter at the Copenhagen climate change conference late last year. He said, in part, “…We must have a mechanism to review whether we are keeping our commitments, and to exchange this information in a transparent manner. These measures need not be intrusive, or infringe upon sovereignty. They must, however, ensure that an accord is credible, and that we are living up to our obligations. For without such accountability, any agreement would be empty words on a page.”

Obama also remarked, “We can actually monitor what takes place through satellite imagery and so forth, so I think we are going to have a pretty good idea of what people are doing.” The U.S. president said that a credible deal could be successful if “… there is a sense of moral obligation and information sharing so that people can see who’s serious and who’s not.”

Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, has stated that he was loath to have international monitors breach the national sovereignty of the People’s Republic. A final accord has been purported to have Chinese demands met by agreeing that emissions can be measured domestically, given that the results are reported to other nations.

Still, the power of satellites and increasingly sensitive sensors, operated under the flags of many nations, cannot be underestimated in their role of climate treaty verification.

As noted by the NRC, today’s atmospheric CO2 sampling network of ground stations, aircraft, and satellites is not well designed for estimation of emissions from large local sources distributed around the globe. Ground stations and aircraft were purposefully deployed away from large fossil fuel sources to better detect natural sources and sinks, the NRC report explains, but could be deployed to monitor CO2 emitted from selected cities and power plants.

“However, this would require international cooperation, and such nationally operated stations would still have the verification challenges associated with self-reporting,” the NRC reports.

Their conclusion is that “satellites obviate these problems.”

What has become unambiguous, given the murky posturing of politics, is a clear call for satellite monitoring to help keep a vigil eye on our changing Earth. A worldwide community of satellites can provide the scientific wherewithal for sensible climate-related decision-making over the next decades.

Editor’s Note: Climate as a security risk is addressed in depth on page 20. Also, the Spring 2009 issue includes a story on treaty monitoring using satellites.

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