Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Eyes in the Sky: Using Satellites to Help Reduce Emissions

By Franklin ZhengPublished January 17, 2022

An artist's rendition of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 orbiting the earth.
Front and center at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow were urgent messages to abide by emissions pledges. With development underway of new satellite technologies to monitor and identify countries’ emissions, it may soon be possible to further increase transparency and encourage compliance with these pledges.

At the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (commonly referred to as COP26, which was hosted in Glasgow, Scotland), world leaders met to negotiate binding agreements about reducing emissions and addressing climate change. This meeting was the first since the 2015 Paris Agreement (COP21), where parties were expected to bolster prior commitments, while also accounting for recent climate change data. The conference was primarily focused on mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and encouraging more immediate emission reductions. As dictated in COP21, countries are held accountable for their nationally determined contributions to reducing the global temperature increase to “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.” All signatories of the treaty are expected to measure and report their emissions rates. The reporting of these rates, however, is often a point of contention, as countries may seek to misrepresent their contributions to the climate agreement or may simply lack the capabilities to properly measure their emissions. Consequently, it is necessary to consider how countries around the world can ensure that their emissions reports are both accurate and truthful.


Former United States Vice President Al Gore presented a potential solution to this problem at a secondary event tangential to the COP26 climate summit. Gore referenced the old adage “you can only manage what you can measure” to accentuate the need for increased transparency in emissions reports, as well as to highlight recent developments in satellite technology and artificial intelligence that would detect global emissions. Existing fleets of satellites are capable of performing monthly and weekly flyovers of the entire planet. These fleets should be bolstered and repurposed to detect greenhouse gas emissions on a daily basis, something that Gore claims is not entirely unfeasible. With these large amounts of data being potentially gathered every 24 hours, analysis of this data could become a task for artificial intelligence to conquer. When properly trained, machine learning pattern recognition algorithms should be able to easily discern areas of high greenhouse gas emissions. This task would be even simpler for artificial intelligence, given the existence of high resolution spectroscopic techniques that can clearly display emissions by capturing imagery along specific wavelengths. A methane leak may be relatively invisible to a traditional aerial flyover, but when viewing the area through infrared, the leak’s presence becomes far more visible.


Many existing satellites are already equipped with these lens technologies. One satellite spearheading this new generation of adapting technology for emissions detection is the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2). Though initially designed to analyze the effects of natural climate phenomena’s impacts on CO2 distribution, OCO-2 has been proven to be able to detect human-caused emissions by measuring the CO2 in the thin column of air between itself and the ground below, in order to distinguish minute changes in atmospheric CO2 levels. Companies such as GHGSat, Sentinel 5P, CO2M, and MethaneSAT possess similar satellites for the detection of CO2, methane, and other greenhouse gases. Repurposing them strictly for the detection of human emissions should be a rather simple task. Projects such as Climate TRACE, for example, already use satellite readings to scan and mark areas with significant emissions every day. In fact, Climate TRACE found that emissions from rice production in India were three times as high as what was reported. Such noncompliance by states, whether intentional or not, must be eliminated to reach the COP21 goals. 


In the international relations sphere, this form of a lack of cooperation is referred to as the collective action problem, a dilemma in which all participating parties would benefit from cooperating, yet each party acts with the expectation that all others would bear the costs of cooperation. Satellites such as OCO-2 can provide transparency about countries’ lack of compliance with their emissions pledges through their consistent and objective feedback. With over 70 countries possessing some form of space program, the implementation of satellite emissions detection must be seen less as a unilateral movement and more as an international cooperative undertaking. Such an endeavor could increase trust, verify compliance, and incentivize cooperation. Even countries without space capabilities could contribute by collaborating to develop on-board instruments for emissions detection. This transparent, multilateral satellite project could effectively rid countries of the temptation to free-ride the COP21 agreements. With emerging satellite-based technology pushing the boundaries of what is possible in global emissions detection, the next steps are clear: further refinement, additional production, and multilateral deployment. Only then would it perhaps be possible to begin reducing emissions’ impacts on the environment.

Works Cited

Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.