Real Time Emissions Data Is Finally Coming, Thanks to Al Gore's New Coalition

Al Gore and Climate TRACE are using artificial intelligence to track carbon emissions data in real time.

Sophie Hirsh - Author

Jul. 16 2020, Updated 1:08 p.m. ET

satellite earth climate trace
Source: NASA/Newsmakers/Getty Images

With all the alarming climate data out there, you’d think there’s some magical entity diligently measuring greenhouse gas emissions every second of every day — but the reality is, a lot of that data is simply estimates. 

To clear up the ambiguity and controversy surrounding emissions data reporting, a group of nine climate and tech groups and former Vice President Al Gore have come together to form the Climate TRACE coalition. The alliance is developing a tool to track global GHG emissions in real time, using artificial intelligence (AI) and other cutting-edge technologies.

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What is Climate TRACE?

Gore and the climate scientists announced Climate TRACE (Tracking Real-Time Atmospheric Carbon Emissions) this week, explaining in a press release on Carbon Tracker Initiative that their tool will track GHG emissions from every major human-caused emitting activity across the globe, including power plants, factories, ships, and more. The animal agriculture, forestry, and transportation industries are notably missing from that list, but it's unclear if they're included in the "more" category. 

Basically, "Climate TRACE will reveal the 'where,' 'when,' and 'who' behind GHG emissions," as explained in a Medium blog post authored by Gore and Gavin McCormick, executive director of Climate TRACE member group WattTime.

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How will Climate TRACE use AI?

al gore climate trace
Source: Getty Images for Paramount Pictures

To execute this massive undertaking, Climate TRACE will use a combination of remote sensing technologies, including AI, satellite image processing, and machine learning. The team is working to have the first version of the tool ready by summer 2021, according to the Climate TRACE website. The coalition also hopes to present the tool at COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021, according to Vox. The independently gathered data will be shared with the public. 

“The world has reached a tipping point on the climate crisis. In order to achieve a zero-carbon future, we need a comprehensive accounting of where pollution is coming from,” Gore said in a statement. “We are excited that Climate TRACE holds the promise to revolutionize global efforts to measure and reduce emissions across every sector of society, creating a new era of unprecedented transparency and accountability. Our vision is to equip business, policy, and citizen leaders with an essential tool to fully realize the economic and job-creation opportunities of the Sustainability Revolution.”

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Why is real-time emissions data important?

Because we do not currently have detailed, real-time data on emissions, far too much time winds up being spent disputing these estimates — time that would be far better spent on actually coming up with climate solutions. Not to mention, since countries self-report their own emissions, many tend to round their estimates down, according to Carbon Tracker Initiative.

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“We as a society have an excellent, objective way of measuring the total emissions in the atmosphere, called the Keeling Curve. But we haven’t yet figured out any similar way of objectively tracking, in essentially real time, where those emissions are coming from,” McCormick said in the press release. 

“The Earth is like a medical patient suffering from a condition called climate change. Trying to fix it with only years-late, self-reported emissions data is like asking a doctor to fix a serious disease with no more information than a list of symptoms the patient had years ago,” McCormick continued. “They’ll do their best. But there’s a reason hospitals use blood pressure monitors, stethoscopes—maybe an X-ray or MRI—to check what’s wrong with you right now. If we’re serious about stopping climate change, it’s time we gave climate ‘doctors’ the same kind of tools.”

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Tufts University energy and environmental policy Professor Kelly Sims Gallagher agreed — as she explained to Vox, without solid data, “you cannot devise smart and effective policies to mitigate emissions” and “you cannot track them to see if you are making progress against your goals.”

Having accurate data on emissions is so important — without it, there’s a risk that we are focusing on the wrong priorities in the fight against the climate crisis. Hopefully Climate TRACE will stick to its deadline of launching this tool in one year's time, because we really can’t afford to wait much longer.

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