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Counting carbon

Counting carbon

The amount of carbon put out needs to decrease, the amount taken in to increase. To do that you need to count carbon. Welcome to remote sensing. 

Number of the day: 2.4. Climate Action Tracker’s predicted increase in global temperatures from previous and current pledges at Cop in degrees C.

Cop negotiations may be long and tedious but the key goal remains: the amount of carbon put out needs to decrease, and the amount taken in needs to increase.

To do that, you need to be able to count carbon. It’s not easy but we’re getting better at it. Advances in remote sensing tech and AI mean we can measure carbon and greenhouse gases at the scale of rainforests down to a leak in a gas pipeline.

What is remote sensing? Sensors in satellites and high-flying planes measure radiation from across the electromagnetic spectrum (light, microwaves, infrared) to analyse the chemistry of the atmosphere and the biomass below. Then experts analyse the mountains of data the sensors produce. The origins of this tech lie in early 20th-century military surveillance and topography. Now we have a complex network of sensors and cameras carefully, constantly monitoring our planet from on high. 

Why does it matter at Cop? Tracking greenhouse gases with remote sensing is essential for keeping countries and companies accountable for their emissions, and giving them credit for their emissions reductions, especially for countries that lack the capability themselves. Even better, sensors aren’t swayed by geopolitics if a country decides to fiddle or hide its numbers. The Washington Post used satellite data to show how developing countries like Malaysia are significantly over-reporting how much carbon their trees are soaking up.

What’s it worth? The total value of the world’s carbon markets grew 20 per cent last year to $277 billion, according to Refinitiv, a financial data firm. 

There are three key areas in which remote sensing can help with the great atmospheric audit that Cop is aiming for:

  • Methane. Remote sensing can track “fugitive emissions” from natural gas processing, which are up to 80 times more potent as greenhouse gases than CO2. The European Space Agency and Kayross, a data analytics firm, found that the number of methane plumes emitted from ageing Russian gas infrastructure rose by at least 40 percent last year. Russia didn’t put its name to the Global Methane Pledge last week, but the data leaves it nowhere to hide. 
  • Biomass. Knowing the carbon content of particular parcels of biomass is vital for Article 6 of the Paris agreement (more below). Any effective carbon market will need reforestation and forest protection as potential offsets. But just as you wouldn’t buy a car without checking if the engine worked, buyers and brokers of carbon credits need to know what they really mean for emissions reduction. Remote sensing can tell them.  
  • Weather. You can always look out the window (it’s bonnie in Glasgow today), but you need satellites to track global trends. The data they produce is essential for attribution to climate change, not least for insurers; planning multi trillion-dollar adaptation and mitigation strategies; and tracking wind and sunshine for grid managers and renewable power providers.

A lot of this tech is brand new and relies on cross-border cross-agency collaboration. Successive Cops have proven how difficult that can be. 

Nature is infinitely variable. Diego Saez Gil, founder of a ecosystems monitoring start-up Pachama, told a Cop event that as his big tech neighbours work on face recognition algorithms, his company is building algorithms “to predict and detect the carbon that is being sequestered by a forest”. Every face is different and each tree and biome soaks up carbon differently. And there are a lot more trees than humans.  

The Readout

At yesterday’s ThinkIn in partnership with Capgemini, we were joined by David Blood, Founding Partner and Senior Partner at Generation Investment Management, Fiona Howarth CEO of Octopus EV, and Rosemary Stark, Group Executive Committee Member at Capgemini to discuss what CEOs should actually do about the climate crisis – apart from talk.

Key points:

  • Leaders are not only empowered to make change, they are responsible for it. Many are at the centre of large professional and personal networks, meaning they can lead by example and cause a larger-than-average “ripple effect” to change behaviour.
  • Targets and strategies for the mid-century are not enough. Leaders need to push for interim targets, and check on their performance every year if not more often.
  • There are different kinds of leaders, and those prepared to be “courageous” rather than just “attentive” are desperately needed now.

If you missed the ThinkIn, you can read our summary and watch it back in our app and online.

watch now

Catch up on our series of ThinkIns at The New York Times Climate Hub in Glasgow

engagement and activism

Gender blind
It’s telling that Gender Day at Cop26 had to share the stage with “science and innovation”. Only 3 per cent of climate-related overseas development aid specifically targets women’s rights, yet women bear the brunt of climate impacts: according to the UNDP 80 per cent of those displaced by the climate crisis are women or children. The Malala Fund found that climate-related events will prevent at least 4 million girls in developing economies from finishing school in 2021. Yesterday the UK announced £165m to tackle climate change through projects that centre on gender equality – but that’s a drop in the ocean. Climate finance at the moment is “gender blind, not gender-responsive”, says Salina Sanou of the Pan-African Climate Justice Alliance. She sees three problems with the way climate finance is currently distributed: women are largely absent from discussions about mobilising funding; there’s a dearth of data on how much finance actually gets to women in developing countries; and funders often prioritise returns over long-term social and economic advancement. To fight climate change, women will need money.


Crossed fires
Scientists have identified a paradox buried within the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package Biden is trying to ferry through Congress. They say that, despite promising $570 billion to combat climate change through tax credits and investment, the bill also includes “a mandate for 12 million hectares of logging on federal public lands over the next 15 years”. Equally baffling is a line from the net zero strategy released last week by the White House that appears to advocate felling older forests because they “sequester less CO2 and are more vulnerable to natural disturbances.” In response, more than 200 climate scientists and ecologists, including James Hansen, have signed an open letter calling for Biden and Congress to remove the provisions. Strategic logging can act as a bulwark against catastrophic wildfires. But doubling the subsidies available to loggers in the same week as pledging to end deforestation? Cut the lumber folks some slack if they’re confused. 


The cost of living
Climate change already kills five million people a year, and unavoidable increases in global temperature (even if the world slashes emissions) are certain to bring more drought, fire, flooding and devastation. The focus of Cop has been to cut emissions and mitigate this impact – but some of it is locked in, and the UN says developing countries will need $300 billion a year in 2030 to adapt. So the group of 46 Least Developed Countries in the UN came to Cop hoping that developed countries might set aside money to help them do that. Yesterday, the EU pledged just $115 million. “Financing adaptation is critical,” Frans Timmermans, EU climate policy chief told Cop. But the cash his commission coughed up is a fraction of what’s needed.


John Kerry foresees a deal of some sort on Article 6 carbon-trading rules by tomorrow night but a lot of cats will have to be herded first. “Frankly on a lot of issues there is still too much between us,” Alok Sharma said for the host nation on day 8. No kidding. Up to the podium came Iran (sanctions are “economic terrorism” and we can’t help while they’re in place); Russia (ditto); Nicaragua (“didn’t cause this crisis”); the Gambia (“without additional finances [agreement will be] extremely difficult) and the EU (“to the parties stopping and stalling, I say what are you waiting for?”). This process operates by consensus and there’s an answer to the EU question: the developing world is waiting for more money from the EU and the US. Much more. The sort of amount that can only be unleashed by the private sector. Hence the importance of new carbon-trading rules. Call it a Cats 22.

Separately, a spy tells us the Saudi delegation’s been “planting bombs” all over the convention centre, in a manner of speaking, aiming to derail the talks by holding out on gender equity provisions in the Article 6 smallprint. Because sometimes, if you control a giant puddle of sweet light crude, no deal is the best deal you can get. 

Do share this around, and let us know what you think of it.

Thanks for reading.

Phoebe Davis

Additional reporting by Barney Macintyre, Ellen Halliday and Giles Whittell.

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