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A tidal wave of new carbon emissions data soon will be upon us

The technologies to acquire and share new sources of real time data on environmental conditions are advancing and proliferating at speed


A radical increase in available carbon emissions data may be just around the corner. Should it happen within a matter of months as proponents hope, its effects will spread around the world to dramatic effect.

Cities failing to measure and publish their emissions data will find themselves under renewed and intense scrutiny. Slow-to-change investors and greenwashers in the business community will lose their cover to continue propping up the fossil fuel economy. And citizens and consumers will have the kind of granular information they need to more effectively target the decision-makers and brands standing in the way of a sustainable future.

Central to this shift is likely to be is a collaborative endeavor called Climate TRACE. Climate TRACE (Tracking Real-Time Atmospheric Carbon Emissions) is a project to use satellite image processing, remote sensing technologies, machine learning and artificial intelligence to monitor worldwide human-made greenhouse gas emissions in real time. Unlike other approaches to monitoring emissions, it plans to attribute emissions to specific sources, whether these be individual factories, ships, power plants or a range of other facilities and all its data will be placed in the public domain.

The initiative is the product of a nine-organization collaboration that has the backing of climate campaigner and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore. Among those involved are nonprofits including Carbon Tracker, CarbonPlan, Hudson Carbon, OceanCarbon, RMI, WattTime and the Earthrise Alliance, and tech companies Bluesky Analytics and Hypervine. Each partner brings a relevant monitoring technology to the table and expertise or a track record working in a key industry such as transport, agriculture or the energy sector.

Ultimately, all these impacts from increased transparency will have to be accommodated.

If successfully on stream by summer 2021 as its designers hope, the service should drive not only increased transparency but also increased accountability.

For the unprepared, the damage could be severe. The kind of Reddit-coordinated collective action by retail investors that disrupted stock prices recently soon may be copied by ethical investors armed with highly specific real-time emissions data to achieve similar effects. Some previously untargeted companies, brands, institutional investors and geographies will be thrust into the limelight as central problems in the battle against climate change. Their asset values and prospects will be damaged by sudden negative shifts in both consumer and investor sentiment as a result.  

Those that up to now have been talking a good game on environmental, social and governance (ESG) reporting while failing to deliver in practice are likely to be exposed as greenwashers, sometimes brutally and at high speed. And data sets currently used to track a company’s ESG performance also will need to be radically overhauled.

As a result, we can expect to see personal, political and business incentives tilt in favor of more action to combat climate change. Faster private- and public-sector innovation to get emissions down should follow. Sustainable investments should grow as divestment from carbon-intensive industries intensifies. And the newly available data should make it easier for governments to enforce environmental laws and for climate change mitigation measures and aid flows to be more efficiently financed and targeted at the areas of greatest beneficial impact.

More controversially, forensically targeted climate activism may spill over more frequently into legally contentious areas and in some jurisdictions, the authorities may double down on their already evident efforts to badge environmental activists as security threats. Climate-centered legal disputes will proliferate as climate-impacted regions, entities and communities increasingly turn to the law to sue carbon-emitting ones. Even the COP26 climate talks, scheduled for November in Glasgow, Scotland, may be made harder as transparency on emissions puts whole countries in the dock for not meeting emissions targets, triggering fresh contention over which countries need to do more and which need to pay more for a faster transition to net zero.

Ultimately, all these impacts from increased transparency will have to be accommodated. The technologies to acquire and share new sources of real-time data on environmental conditions are advancing and proliferating at speed. Satellite image processing systems and the billions of remote sensing and monitoring devices making up the internet of things (IoT) are one reason.

But many foresee an internet of citizens (IoC) playing an important role in the not-too-distant future, too. A "Digital Technology and the Planet" report from the Royal Society in London recently suggested citizens soon could be use their mobile devices to capture and share emissions data in real time. This "citizen science," the report argued, would "give everyone an active role and empower citizens to contribute to building data-driven systems for the planet."

The age of radically transparent and democratised carbon emissions data is coming. The only remaining questions relate to how soon, and which leaders and organizations will be ready.

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