Climate

This Al Gore-backed coalition is trying to hold climate polluters accountable

Climate TRACE is an ambitious attempt at detecting and tracking global greenhouse gas emissions on a granular level, in real time, for the first time.

Gavin McCormick on stage at a conference in front of a map showing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

“Can you monitor everything?” Al Gore asked founding Climate TRACE member Gavin McCormick.

Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile for Collision via Getty Images

You can’t reduce carbon emissions if you don’t know where they’re coming from. Or as Al Gore put it in a recent conversation with Protocol, “There’s an old saying in the business world, ‘You can only manage what you can measure.’” And up until now, measuring who was emitting what and when was nearly impossible.

Climate TRACE, though, is trying to change that by tracking greenhouse gas pollution around the world using satellites, machine learning and other tech. The goal of the coalition, founded by Gore and others, is radical transparency that could be used to hold big and small polluters alike accountable. At a time when accountability is lacking at the international and company levels, the effort could be just what’s needed to bend the emissions curve.

A satellite image of a wildfire. Climate TRACE began as a student project aimed at tracking emissions using AI and satellites. Photo: Climate TRACE

The coalition of researchers and tech companies is leaderless and unincorporated, and its data is completely free and public. “We thought that was essential for anyone to trust us,” founding member Gavin McCormick told Protocol.

Climate TRACE’s mission may seem like a tall order, but it’s one that a number of big names in tech believe in. John Doerr has endorsed it, and Gore is a founding member and donor along with partners at his firm, Generation Investment Management. Google.org — Google’s charitable arm — and Eric and Wendy Schmidt’s philanthropic venture Schmidt Futures are also helping to get Climate TRACE’s efforts off the ground.

What became Climate TRACE started out as a student project led by McCormick at the University of California, Berkeley, aimed at tracking emissions data from power plants. “We started it for fun,” McCormick said, in what is a very nerdy definition of a good time. “It was very much by accident. There was no founding vision, no deep-seated belief that what we were doing would save the world.”

But things began to get more serious when the researchers decided to apply for funding through Google.org’s AI Impact Challenge “on a lark" to bring satellite data into their work, according to McCormick. They ended up winning in 2019, and the snowball on what would become Climate TRACE began to roll.

Gore’s office reached out shortly thereafter. McCormick said Gore told him he’d “been waiting for something like this for years,” and asked if it was possible to do more than monitor power plants. “Can you monitor everything?” the former vice president asked.

Gore, for his part, had advocated for using AI to better detect emissions sources as early as his vice presidency. “But the technology was not mature at that time,” he told Protocol.

McCormick told Gore what he wanted still wasn’t possible. After all, the team was just recently students or, in McCormick’s case, a dropout, as he’d left his Ph.D. program to focus full-time on running the project, now a nonprofit dubbed WattTime. (The NGO now uses the emissions data that Climate TRACE compiles to help companies calculate the least-polluting time for electricity use.)

“But we realized that if we just partnered with enough organizations … between us all, we can each bite off a piece of it,” McCormick said.

Thus, Climate TRACE was born. “TRACE” stands for Tracking Real-Time Atmospheric Carbon Emissions. (“Nailing the acronym is an important step,” Gore joked.) Today it’s a coalition of over 50 organizations, ranging from for-profit businesses to university research labs, that meets twice a week on Zoom to take on the thorny task of detecting and tracking global greenhouse gas emissions in real time. Each member organization is responsible for a different sector, ranging from shipping to oil and gas to mining.

Last fall, the coalition released the world’s first global emissions inventory, which can be broken down by individual sector and country. “That’s the first time that’s ever been done, and the work has continued and intensified,” Gore said.

This October, the coalition plans on releasing the first-ever asset-level inventory, which will show the greenhouse gas emissions from individual power plants, steel mills or cargo ships. Climate TRACE also plans on ranking the 500 biggest sources of greenhouse gas pollution in every subsector of the global economy. That will come, Gore noted, just in time for major international climate talks being held in Egypt. In addition, the coalition is also working on developing APIs that could help investors trying to decarbonize their portfolios, corporate supply chain managers trying to reduce emissions or NGOs that want to better target their campaigns against polluters.

In an era when companies and countries alike are making major commitments to reducing emissions, Climate TRACE’s data could be a revelation. There is currently no truly independent source verifying that countries and companies are actually doing what they’ve promised. In fact, accountability has been seriously lacking in almost every context; the Paris Agreement is nonbinding, and corporate climate plans are, at the end of the day, just nice promises. Absent strong, binding regulations or agreements, an independent body to publicly name and shame polluters is one of the best tools to stop bad actors from frying the planet.

Carbon dioxide is notoriously hard to measure and track via satellite imagery. Satellites can technically detect carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but you can’t control what’s in its optical path, said Pieter Tans, senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Global Monitoring Laboratory. In essence, that means that just because you see carbon dioxide near a power plant, that doesn’t mean the power plant emitted it, because of confounding factors like background pollution, wind and other types of weather.

Absent strong, binding regulations or agreements, an independent body to publicly name and shame polluters is one of the best tools to stop bad actors from frying the planet.

To get around this sticky situation, McCormick said Climate TRACE relies on “anything that we can physically see” to detect pollution and its source. Among these are steam coming out of cooling towers, thermal infrared heat, column-integrated nitrogen oxide (a co-pollutant) and even ripples in lakes near power plants, which can indicate if water is being used for cooling purposes.

Climate TRACE gathers data from carbon dioxide sensors on the ground, the most reliable being the continuous emission monitoring system, which monitors every power plant in the U.S. Those sensors are high-quality, but there aren’t very many of them. Climate TRACE uses them, though, to cross-validate other sources of data that isn't as high-quality or granular, such as satellite data. (Climate TRACE relies on publicly funded satellites like those launched and managed by NASA and the European Space Agency, as well as commercial satellite data that they purchase from places like Planet and GHGSat.) That helps train the coalition’s AI.

In Gore’s view, Climate TRACE’s data will allow everyone interested in solving the climate crisis — businesses, investors, NGOs, governments — to take action that could “quickly and dramatically” reduce emissions. Up until Climate TRACE, “we did not have actionable data,” he said.

Infrared satellite images of a steel plant Climate TRACE gathers data from carbon dioxide sensors on the ground as well as satellites in space.Photo: TransitionZero, a co-founding member of Climate TRACE

It’s not a coincidence that the group plans on releasing its next inventory right before the next U.N. climate conference. “All of the present data sources on greenhouse gas emissions, other than Climate TRACE, are derived from a single bottleneck source,” Gore said. And it's self-reported emissions data handed to the U.N., which only developed countries are required to report. Those reports are often five or more years out of date and include “large omissions,” Gore pointed out.

There are “huge biases in accounting procedures,” Tans said, so any efforts to add more accuracy and specificity to country-level reporting would be helpful. (A Washington Post investigation before climate talks last year confirmed this.)

True to its word, Climate TRACE has already found some inconsistencies between reported emissions and what it's detected. One of the biggest discrepancies is, perhaps unsurprisingly, from the oil and gas sector, which McCormick said “is noticeably less honest than all the other sectors.” Emissions from production and refining were approximately double what had been reported to the U.N.

“Again, that’s only for the countries that are required to report their emissions,” Gore stressed. Climate TRACE’s estimates show that more than 1 billion additional tons of emissions have gone uncounted by countries that aren’t required to report them.

Climate TRACE has another advantage. Unlike efforts like Tans’, whose lab sits within the U.S. Department of Commerce, the coalition’s work isn’t subject to the whims of a changing administration.

“I thought this is something the government should do. However, I have doubts,” Tans said, pointing to the fact that President Donald Trump tried to drastically cut funding to the NOAA while he was in office. While Trump didn’t succeed, Tans said “there’s a vulnerability there” for federal agencies’ data.

Despite his background, Gore also strongly believes that independent coalitions like Climate TRACE are better suited to take on this work of emissions tracking than the government. The evidence speaks for itself, he said: “Governments haven’t done it,” partly because it’s hard to do. AI and machine learning powering the efforts is “relatively new” and is only now being harnessed to “precisely identify the emissions in every single sector.”

Gore strongly believes that independent coalitions like Climate TRACE are better suited to take on this work of emissions tracking than the government.

The coalition’s work is far from done. “We’re recruiting every day,” McCormick said. One area it’s still struggling with and looking for additional organizational support for is detecting indoor fossil fuel use and emissions from things like cooktops and hot water heaters, which are understandably hard to track via satellites. Soil carbon is still another source of emissions that are difficult to track from space that the group hopes to suss out.

McCormick recounted a conversation he had with Gore in which the former vice president told him that, as one of the people responsible for everyone waking up to the climate crisis, he thinks it’s gone too far “to the doom side.” Panic is now becoming a bigger risk. When people get in panic mode, they stop looking for solutions.

In McCormick’s view, Climate TRACE is one reason for optimism, because the group’s not just calling out the “bad guys”; it’s also revealing those solutions. Through the coalition’s work, for example, the shipping industry has figured out that slowing down “significantly” cuts emissions, a relatively simple fix.

“I’m by nature a pessimist, and you wouldn’t know it from my face, because I’m just staring at really promising data,” he said.

This story has been updated to reflect that WattTime received the Google.org award in 2019, how its product evolved and that the people behind WattTime were "recently" students at the time (they started the project as students).

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