Emitters beware: WMO wants to find you

Map showing global carbon dioxide urban emissions, with high emissions in red and low emissions in blue. (Keystone/Animate4.com/Science Photo Library)

As pressure mounts for climate action, scientific experts meet at the WMO to discuss how countries can better measure their heat trapping emissions.

Weather and space specialists from around the world slid straight into talking shop on Monday at the World Meteorological Organization’s (WMO) International Greenhouse Gas Monitoring Symposium. Technical jargon abounded as they presented research on emissions and monitoring by government agencies, even highlighting  reporting discrepancies. 

Petteri Taalas, WMO director general, told the participants that monitoring greenhouse gas emissions was “crucially needed”. But recent reports showed “uncertainties” regarding sources and sinks for CO2 as well as an increase in methane concentrations, he said, opening the discussions. Methane, a much more concentrated gas than carbon, is mostly emitted from agriculture, oil and gas extraction as well as coal mining.

“We don’t fully understand the reason behind that,” he said. “This is demonstrating the need to better monitor the greenhouse gas budgets.” He added that as countries present their own national emissions-cutting pledges, the process would allow for assessing “what is happening in the real atmosphere that’s important for the Cop climate process”.

In 2021, concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere reached new highs, further driving climate change.

The three-day event comes as the Geneva-based organisation prepares for this year’s United Nations climate summit in Dubai, at the end of November. The Cop28, to be presided by Sultan al Jaber, president of Abu Dhabi state oil company, will determine if countries are able to stay on target in curbing their carbon emissions to keep temperature rise below the 1.5ºC limit.  A “global stocktake” is expected to be conducted to assess progress towards achieving those goals.

Taalas said that after recently meeting Al Jaber in the United Arab Emirates to discuss climate monitoring and early warning systems, which the WMO chief has been keen to accelerate globally, he planned to meet again with the Emirati in March, and was “happy to bring any items” to his attention. 

Filling gaps 

Michel Jean, the symposium’s programme committee chair, said that participants could learn from WMO’s success in setting up the World Weather Watch some 60 years ago to establish standards for global sharing of weather data, including through satellite, land and sea observations.

While a number of systems already exist to observe greenhouse gas emissions in real time, speakers at the gathering noted that they are incomplete, with gaps in certain regions where they are both emitted and absorbed, as well as sectors of the economy responsible for their release. The observation of certain types of greenhouse gases is also limited. Some additionally called for smaller grids for emissions monitoring all surfaces globally, with the WMO proposing that observations should cover areas in 100 kilometre by 100 kilometre meshes.

“In order for mitigation (of emissions) to be successful, it must be based on a monitoring system and understanding of the entire system of fluxes of natural and man-made emissions,” said Lars Peter Riishojgaard, deputy director of the WMO’s infrastructure department and  director of the WMO Integrated Observing System.

He said that while monitoring of CO2 emissions from fossil fuels extraction is well advanced, assessment of emissions coming from land use change from a natural landscape for example to a farm or a road is not so concise. 

Another mystery is where those emissions end up exactly, whether it is land surfaces, ocean waters or the atmosphere. “There are fairly heroic assumptions being used in accounting,” Riishojgaard said.

Other experts pointed to weaknesses in understanding exact geographic locations where methane and nitrous dioxide — another major contributor to global warming originating from agriculture and industrial activities  – go to and originate. 

Establishing those greenhouse gas budgets would be key to keeping track of whether countries are delivering on their climate pledges.

But many countries do not have the data, or the means to collect it, and establish carbon inventories that others do. “Some countries have done this very well, some countries have done that in a more mediocre way, and some countries simply do not have the data to do this,” said Riishojgaard.

The inability to properly budget the mitigation of emissions through carbon offsets is yet another issue. “The standards for ‘negative emissions’, used for the carbon market, carbon offsets and carbon credits, are poorly regulated and not effectively regulated,” he said. “That is a problem because a lot of the mitigation activity happens there.”

How to keep track of progress

Also participating in discussions in Geneva were government institutions such as the United States space agency NASA, mandated by the US Congress to monitor carbon emissions, and the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), which has been developing the Copernicus CO2 service – an advanced system to monitor and identify global carbon and methane emissions.

Hugo Zenker, European Union commission policy officer in the Copernicus unit, said the programme was already supporting “quite a bit” climate policy issues thanks to its data provision, which was “free and open” to the public.

Korea, Japan and Australian experts also presented national and regional monitoring capacities, that included data collection from satellites, low flying planes, ships and skyscrapers.

“Top-down” observations of atmospheric greenhouse gas fluxes from satellites or planes and “bottom-up” estimations based on sector-specific emissions provide different types of data. While the former can produce faster estimates, it is expensive. Surfaced-based estimations are most effective to assess man made emissions, but are slow.

Meanwhile some private initiatives, such as Climate TRACE, an NGO supported by former US vice president and climate activist Al Gore, have been sourcing satellite data, or through land-based air monitors to prove who may be responsible for the emissions, and holding them to account.

Riishojgaard was positive about the momentum that has been building around WMO’s plans, saying that much of what is needed for the monitoring system to go into operation globally, already existed, with countries and international organisations having the capacity to develop required observation systems. 

Above all, he said the systems would benefit not only state parties to the Paris agreement and public entities tasked with regulating, but also the private sector and anyone with an interest in reporting emissions, including those involved in carbon markets.

Results from ongoing discussions, according to WMO officials, will be presented to the WMO executive council at the end of February, before going to the organisation’s congress meeting in late May.