Carbon emissions with sunset

Carbon satellites could monitor Paris Agreement efforts, researchers suggest

Image credit: Dreamstime

Researchers based at the University of Copenhagen have developed a method for collecting detailed information about atmospheric carbon dioxide across continents using a satellite.

According to the researchers, the satellite could be one of the most important new tools in carbon measurement since harnessing infrared light for the purpose and could prove useful for monitoring governments’ efforts to cut carbon emissions, as required by the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Carbon is an integral part of life on Earth, although when carbon is converted into carbon dioxide – such as through respiration or burning – it contributes to climate change. Human civilisation, trees and oceans all play roles in altering the Earth’s carbon balance. Scientists attempt to monitor these impacts on the carbon balance using aerial photography.

However, this group of Danish researchers used a French-built satellite to measure the biomass of above-ground vegetation with low-frequency microwaves. This approach enables far more precise measurements than that which is currently possible with aerial photography.

“This is one of the biggest steps related to carbon measurement since infrared measurements were developed in the 1970s,” said Dr Martin Stefan Brandt, who led the study at Copenhagen.

“The new satellite can measure emissions from all types of vegetation, including trunks and branches - not just the crowns, as has been the case until now. This presents a much more detailed account of the carbon balance in the region concerned.”

Over a period of seven years, Brandt and his colleagues monitored the entire continent of Africa. The data collected by the satellite allowed them to produce a detailed map of the carbon balance across the whole continent, identifying how drought and deforestation were strongly linked to leaps in carbon emissions. As this is a technique well-suited to analysing emissions by country, the researchers believe that the use of these satellites by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change could help monitor national efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

The Paris Agreement – to which almost every country is a signatory – seeks to reduce carbon emissions such that global average temperature rises are kept to within 2°C of pre-industrial levels. This could help avert some of the most devastating impacts of climate change. Although US President Donald Trump has pulled the US out of the accord, state leaders are continuing to push to lower carbon emissions within the US.

“We will need to understand how various factors like deforestation and drought affect the carbon balance in order to provide a knowledge base for experts and politicians whose job it is to make decisions related to work on climate change,” said Brandt.

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