The first-ever satellite designed to detect emitters of the main greenhouse gas carbon dioxide is set to launch to space this year, promising to provide authorities with a tool to police compliance with emission reduction efforts designed to slow down climate change.
The satellite, built by Canada-based company GHGSat, will be able to spot major carbon dioxide sources such as individual coal-fired power plants and cement production sites.
GHGSat, founded in 2011, currently operates a fleet of six satellites that excel at detecting the more potent but less abundant greenhouse gas methane. Since launching its first satellite in 2016, the company has made headlines several times. Among other discoveries, it spotted major unreported methane leaks from gas fields in Turkmenistan and Russian coal mines. The GHGSat spacecraft also proved how much of the warming gas is leaking from landfills all over the world, and even spotted burping cows from space.
But detecting spot sources of methane is much easier than discerning individual emitters of carbon dioxide, which is 80 times less potent but nearly eight times more abundant . Background concentrations of carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere are quite high, currently standing at nearly 420 parts of carbon dioxide per million parts of air, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Detecting the additional plume coming from human-made sources on top of this high background therefore requires sensitive sensors that have not been available before. In comparison, there are only about 1,900 parts of methane per billion parts of air in Earth's atmosphere, which makes the detection of additional sources much easier.
However, after fine-tuning their technology for the past six years, GHGSat said their new GHGSat-C10 satellite will be able to detect spot sources of carbon dioxide with a resolution of 82 feet (25 meters), enough to reliably call out individual polluters.
"GHGSat-C10 will use a similar optical design and the same patented infrared sensor as its methane-detecting predecessors, but tuned to carbon dioxide specific wavelengths," the company said in a statement.
GHGSat flew its first carbon dioxide-detecting sensor already on its 2016 demonstration satellite. The company's focus, however, later shifted to methane due to market demand, the company added.
Other satellites currently orbit Earth with missions to monitor fluctuations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. These satellites, such as NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) 2 and 3, however, lack the resolution needed to detect individual sources. But, in a study published in October last year, a team of Canadian researchers demonstrated that it was possible to extract information about individual polluters from the OCO data.
Analyzing measurements taken during several OCO passes over Europe's largest coal-fired power plant, the Bełchatów Power Station in Poland, the researchers were able to detect fluctuations related to shutdowns and upgrades of the plant's individual units. The European Space Agency (ESA) is also currently working on a constellation of satellites for tracking human-made carbon dioxide emissions from space.
These technologies, experts hope, will for the first time provide authorities with a tool to objectively track human-made sources of the number one climate change-causing agent, carbon dioxide. Such measurements will help enforce compliance with international emission reduction pledges as the world still struggles to achieve even minor progress in the battle against climate change.
In spite of political declarations to curb emissions, concentrations of both methane and carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere continue to rise, according to recent reports by NASA, NOAA and the European environment-monitoring program Copernicus.
Currently, countries self-report emissions based on the productivity of their industries, which leads to delays in the emission accounting process. In addition, as the methane leak detections by GHGSat show, this frequently means that large contributions remain unaccounted for.
But as the frequency of devastating climate change-related weather disasters increases, policy makers all over the world are likely to call for tougher action on reckless polluters. Satellites such as GHGSat-C10 could be just the weapon they need.
"Over the past seven years, we have shown there is demand — from industry and the public sector — for accurate, independent, high-resolution emissions data from space," Stephane Germain, CEO at GHGSat, said in the statement. "It helped change the conversation around methane, putting a greenhouse gas that was out of sight and out of mind, to the top of the climate agenda. When C10 launches later this year, we hope to revitalize the discussion around carbon dioxide as well, providing industry and government with tools to help them address this global issue, at the local level."