New ‘Climate Trace’ Emissions Database Unveiled at COP27

November 30, 2022

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NASA's OCO-2 satellite
An artist's rendering of NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO)-2, launched in 2014 as one of a new generation of specialized satellites designed to take measurements of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Reporter’s Toolbox: New ‘Climate Trace’ Emissions Database Unveiled at COP27

By Joseph A. Davis

Sure, there’s a lot of hype at climate change COP meetings. But the new data tool hyped by climate maven Al Gore at the recent COP27 may actually help shed light on the darkening global climate picture.

The effort is ambitious but credible: It seeks to offer quantitative estimates (or measurements) of most of the biggest greenhouse gas emissions in the world.

But is it useful for journalists?

Probably yes, and it probably will keep getting bigger and better all the time. More importantly, it may provide solid(-ish) data in a way that cuts through a lot of the greenwashing.


Where the data come from

The project is called Climate Trace and it’s a huge joint effort. Some may be relieved to learn that the data did not come from Gore himself. And skeptical journalists may be even more pleased to learn that the data did not come from companies or emitters.

Instead, more than 100 collaborators have compiled the data from some 300 satellites and 11,000 sensors. The funders and collaborators are all clearly listed. There are no oil companies among them.


Until the last decade or two, nobody

really tried to measure greenhouse

gas emissions using satellites.


Until the last decade or two, nobody really tried to measure greenhouse gas emissions using satellites. One reason was that most of the major greenhouse gases end up being pretty thoroughly mixed with the rest of the atmosphere fairly quickly.

But today, specialized satellites using specialized instruments can take more sophisticated measurements. GOSAT was launched in 2009 and the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 was launched in 2014.

Still, what the satellites sense takes some intelligence (actually, artificial intelligence) to interpret and understand. That’s done with models. But while models can extend what we know, they are also limited by the assumptions that go into them. This is where the judgment of journalists and scientists is just as important as what emissions models say.

Right now, the data’s focus seems to be mainly on carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide emissions — which is not everything but is a big fraction of it. Meanwhile, the data differ on gases and sources. Today, optical techniques for methane detection can give fast, accurate pinpointing of methane emissions. Less so for carbon dioxide.


How to use the data smartly

While the Climate Trace data is worldwide, many journalists may rather focus on U.S. emissions. There are other sources that can bolster understanding of U.S. emissions, such as the U.S. Greenhouse Gas Inventory, which is compiled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

It is always wise for journalists to compare multiple sources when emissions are estimates rather than direct measurements.

But one virtue of the Climate Trace is that it is not bamboozled by the alleged greenwashing of offsets — that is, offsetting today’s emissions against some hypothetical future absorption of emissions by trees that may not even be planted yet. Whatever Climate Trace measures or estimates that thing is actual emissions.

Another virtue is the way Climate Trace presents information on a global map. You can see an intense concentration of emissions, for instance, in the Permian Basin, Southeast Asia or China (those who worry about the integrity of official Chinese emissions figures may be encouraged by estimates that do not rely on government numbers).

In the end, we advise journalists to weigh multiple sources when looking at emissions data. What, for example, does the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s CarbonTracker say about the same source?

[Editor’s Note: For more on climate data sources, see other recent Reporter’s Toolboxes on a new fossil fuels registry and reporting on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. For more climate change resources and news, see our extensive Climate Change Resource Guide, a new Covering Climate Solutions special report, a wide range of SEJournal coverage in our Topics on the Beat: Climate Change and the latest climate change headlines from EJToday.]

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 43. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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