A satellite at the Grand Palais in Paris where the COP21 climate change talks are currently taking place

New satellites will see which countries are carbon emission cheats

Scientists from Japan, China and the USA are developing satellites that will be able to measure the greenhouse gas emissions of individual countries from space.

It is hoped that the technology could force countries that agree to new climate change agreements at COP21 in Paris to stick to their pledges.

Not only will it show which countries are sticking to the targets, a point of contention at the Paris talks, it will also help emitters to pinpoint the sources of greenhouse gases more quickly and cheaply.

"The real success of a deal here fundamentally revolves around whether we can see emissions and their removals," said John-O Niles, director of the US-based Carbon Institute, which studies methods of carbon dioxide measurement.

"We know satellite technology is evolving so that there is an increasing ability to actually tell whether countries are telling the truth."

Currently, most estimates of greenhouse gas emissions are based on calculations of energy use and other proxy data, rather than on-the-ground measurements. This leaves a huge margin of error when nations submit their figures to the United Nations.

While space-based measurement is unlikely to be mentioned in any deal agreed upon in Paris, the European Union is leading a push for a universal system of measuring, reporting and verifying emissions data.

European and Japanese satellites have been monitoring overall carbon concentrations in the atmosphere since 2002, but calculating emissions at a national or local level is far harder.

China announced plans ahead of COP21 to launch its first emissions-monitoring satellites next year although it alleged that trade restrictions are hampering cooperation.

"NASA and Japan are sharing the best sensors, but not China," said Yi Liu, a lead scientist in China's effort. "This is a problem. We need to work together to make this work."

NASA launched its first satellite to measure atmospheric CO2 in July last year. NASA scientist Lesley Ott said that the satellite, named OCO-2, also showed there was potential to zoom into urban areas to record carbon pollution.

A new device with that capability, OCO-3, has been developed for use on the International Space Station, but has been delayed due to budget constraints.

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