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Monitoring Greenhouse Gasses In The Air

Though we did not come away from Copenhagen with any kind of legally binding agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there will still be efforts to do so, and we need to being monitoring the sources of those gasses for the time when we do have some sort of binding agreement.

A new article in BusinessWeek takes on the questions surrounding honesty in reporting and the possibilities that are coming to existence for monitoring the numbers themselves.

"Monitoring is science's Cinderella, unloved and poorly paid," says geologist Euan Nisbet at the University of London, who heads the European Union's methane monitoring program. He adds that counting on companies and countries to self-report "seems to be asking for misdeclaration or even fraud, at all levels from local emitter to great nation." Cheers to the realism, or cynicism, of science on the question of honesty by large corporations.

As the BusinessWeek article notes, we have only to look at Enron or Arthur Anderson, or even Bernie Madoff for an example of how large misreporting your own data can become if there is not close watch kept on the details.

So is it hopeless to try and accurately monitor any kind of greenhouse gas emissions? Not hopeless, but there are serious barriers and questions.

It’s hard to measure something you can’t see. It’s hard to measure the sheer number of places where greenhouse gasses are being emitted, as they come from everything from trees to cows to corporations to smokestacks. And these are all over the world, all the time. You can’t put that on a spreadsheet the same way you can put finances on a grid or measure time, for that matter.

We already know that monitoring numbers on sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) are wrong, as reported numbers show that air levels are declining but measurements show that the air levels are close to 3x what they are in the reports. Let the games begin, folks.

Some of the blame goes to under-reporting from companies, some goes to nations like China that refuse to report numbers and refuse outside verification of their internal numbers.

There are some companies that have created amazing ways to do the measuring and monitoring, though. Picarro, Los Gatos Research, and LI-COR have all developed ways to continuously monitor gases in the air- this would reduce the role that scientists going out to get samples in the air would play and instead rely on measuring the releases as they happen. This does, though, still not account for the gases that are released by natural means, but it does represent a big change in the way that gases could be accounted for. It’s a step forward.

It sounds similar to the Google Earth satellite monitoring of deforestation rates, in that it will give us a much more full, birds-eye-type view of what is going on. And that can only lead to more accountability and action to reduce the levels. Once we know the truth, there is nothing left to do but deal with it.
Hopefully these kind of monitoring capabilities will make their way into whatever agreement does happen between the global nations in the post-Copenhagen world.

Photo Credit: otodo (via Flickr under CCL)