GreenTech: Watching Climate From Orbit

There’s an index maintained by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) called the Index of Objects Launched into Outer Space… according to this index, there were almost 12% more objects chucked into space in 2022 than in 2021. By the end of the year, there were 8,261 individual satellites orbiting the Earth. So, what are they all doing up there? As it turns out, more and more of them are being put there to help us do some climate detective work.

A Canadian company named GHGSat owns one of these information-seeking satellites, and it’s the very first commercial satellite of its kind deployed specifically to monitor carbon dioxide. Namely, GHGSat is using this feat of engineering to hunt detailed data on the worst climate offenders… then, conversations around accountability can become more fruitful. The company also has six spacecraft up there keeping an eye on methane emissions, but that’s a conversation for another time.

See, CO2 has a specific light signature in the atmosphere… so they just tune the satellite’s shortwave infrared sensor to be able to read that, and the fun begins. With the powerful ability to see emissions with a resolution at ground level of 25m, it makes things very hard on those looking to emit in secret. While it’s true there are already some carbon observers, like NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatories and Japan’s GoSat mission, they’re basically generalists.

Newer satellites… will be different. That’s because, since they will be homing in on individual, specific data, they’ll then be the keepers of an ocean of information, and we anticipate that more than a few entities will be eager to get their hands on it. This data will verify emissions, verified data is valuable. GHGSat’s data is for sale to financial services markets and governments alike. The Paris Climate Accord dictates the compiling of CO2 inventories… that’s something to keep in mind.

You may have heard of this before if you’ve kept up at all with Climate TRACE, which is partially famous because a major backer happens to be former American Vice President Al Gore. It’s an organization that dabbles in emerging science that combines AI and satellite tech to solve the decades old problem of being able to accurately specify where emissions are coming from. Until we have concrete data, we’re marking time… because we can’t manage what we haven’t measured.

Up to this point, our efforts to slow warming have been more or less based on self-reporting. Need we say more? There’s a reason auditors exist, and it’s not because they’re fighting with HR for the most well-liked at work. Furthermore, over 50 countries haven’t bothered to self-report at all in years. While we’re on the subject… according to Climate TRACE, Los Angeles roads are high on the list for worst emitters in the world. Hopefully, that’ll be remedied soon.

Speaking of the United States and reporting, one of our own recently joined a global methane performance initiative designed to improve energy’s methane emissions and encourage the reduction of emissions. The company is Williams, and it’s a big deal because they are huge (handling about one third of U.S. natural gas) and have asserted their commitment to “setting the pace for the midstream sector” in achieving strong methane standards.

As we know… as go the giants, so go the little guys. Williams has voiced their commitment to utilizing their infrastructure footprint to help grow a clean, low-emissions gas market. With Williams now a part of the UN’s oil and gas reporting initiative, called the Oil & Gas Methane Partnership 2.0 (OGMP 2.0), the US will have a dog in the fight, and we’ll have a leader showing others the way to cleaner energy. We’re big fans of any company that braves the helm and forges a path.

Currently, the pool of around 100 companies in over 60 countries represents more than 35% of global oil and gas production. To help out with the program, Williams invested in Orbital Sidekick, a satellite-based emissions monitoring company, and a laser-based emissions monitoring and quantification technologies provider called LongPath Technologies. Data will be synthesized by a Decarbonization as a Service (DasS) platform to create verified emissions profiles.

Once we’ve ferreted out the offenders, done our quantifying and logging, scrubbed and prepared our data, we’ve got an entire chain of value just waiting to be mined for solutions. Lawmakers have been busy passing legislation around the space too, legislation that does things like put a price on emissions from the oil and gas industry. And, with more policy meetings focusing on the data that satellites can provide, we’re just getting started. Come back next week, we’ll have more from the green tech space.