MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters Breakingviews) - Climate activism is nearing the final frontier – and at just the right moment. Last week’s report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that keeping the rise in the Earth’s temperature below 1.5 degrees Celsius requires us to make unprecedented changes by 2030 in the way we use energy resources. One big stumbling block is a lack of enough accurate data. That will soon change, though, as Google, Planet, MethaneScan and a host of space agencies are starting to track greenhouse gases from orbit.
Just a handful of around 250 global corporations and their supply chains account for about one-third of total annual emissions caused by human society, according to a recent study by Thomson Reuters, CDP, and Constellation Research. Think Exxon, PetroChina, Coal India and other oil, gas, transportation, capital-goods and mining engines of the world from which we have all benefited, and through which lies a key solution to climate change.
More than half of these companies, though, do not voluntarily disclose their major sources of greenhouse-gas emissions, let alone their plans to reduce future pollution. In lieu of disclosure, outside experts try to estimate the numbers. What results is a guessing game on who matters most, and what their rate of increase or decrease might be over time.
It’s like having 100 factories on a river from which we all must drink. One-third disclose what they put into it. Two-thirds do not. It’s simply untenable at a time when CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is, at 410 parts per million, literally off the historical chart.
There are moves to improve disclosure. Regulation is one method, with European authorities, for example, recently deciding to require corporate and investor reporting on carbon. Other stakeholders, from investors to consumers, have been pushing for more transparency, too. Witness the recent engagements by shareholders with Exxon, Chevron and others to force the companies to reveal how they’re planning for a carbon-constrained world. Such progress is steady, but slow.
The needle has to move more quickly, though – and preferably in the next five years when the opportunity for action will be the least expensive and disruptive. Taking to the heavens offers just such a chance. The ability to measure emissions levels and sources from orbit will allow us to generate “unprecedented images” of greenhouse gases and how they change over time, European Space Agency scientists revealed in a recent Thomson Reuters report. Now others are collaborating. This month the United Nations Science, Business and Policy Forum is hosting a meeting in Paris with the ESA and fellow space agencies and others: the goal is to determine how to combine data and artificial intelligence to identify and manage sources of emissions.
Alphabet’s Google division is involved in orbital planetary defense too. Rebecca Moore, director of Google Earth, Earth Engine and Outreach, recently launched the Environmental Insights Explorer. It’s designed to make it easier to analyze carbon data and act on it. She says next steps will include “expanding to thousands of cities around the globe and adding more valuable data sets which will be put in the hands of everyone to help build a dynamic digital planet. We seek to help understand, manage, conserve and protect the one planet we have.”
This has major implications. Any big global emitters that are not disclosing their emissions could soon have them measured for them and made public without their involvement. Similarly, those that have released the wrong data will soon stand publicly corrected. Neil Fromer, executive director for the Resnick Institute at Caltech, adds that “this will likely include not just CO2 emissions across networks of suppliers, but also the most dangerous emissions which must be reduced most quickly, such as methane venting from oil and gas fields.”
Reputational, financial and regulatory risk will increase along with emissions. So the ability to properly measure greenhouse gases with real-time data is key. It will remove one of the biggest barriers to addressing climate risk – opacity – and allow companies, investors, policymakers and watchdogs alike to boldly go where we have not been able to go before.
Tim Nixon is head of sustainability thought leadership for Breakingviews parent Thomson Reuters. A version of this article was first published on the Thomson Reuters Sustainability website.
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