The era of global boiling
Only history will tell whether Antonio Guterres’ desperate plea for urgent climate action at the end of last month was a hinge moment in the climate change fight. At the closing of the hottest month in world history, the UN Secretary-General declared the end of the age of global warming and the dawn of the ‘era of global boiling’, requiring immediate and radical action. But what action, specifically? Except for in a vanishingly small number of cases, the efficacy of action rests on the quality of the information available to the actor. Without access to a certain amount of reliable information, the questions of where to begin, what to do, what to target, how to target, what tools to use, how much money to invest, and so on remain unanswered, or only partly answered. And the task of answering such questions is made more urgent, and more important, by the existence of competing interests at the local and global level.
Advancements in technology show us the depth of our mistakes
Increasingly, the information needed to guide climate action within and across sectors and continents exists. And it is to be found in geospatial data drawn from satellites and analysed on Earth. This process was pioneered in Europe, whose Copernicus programme produced the constellation of satellites known as ‘Sentinel’. Sentinel can now cover the entire planet, every day, using radar, medium-resolution optics and hyperspectral sensors to produce imagery of unprecedented quality. One does not have to reflect on this for long to imagine a vast array of uses for this technology and for the data it produces. And as the technology improves in sophistication, that array of potential uses expands. The good news is that the technology has already reached such a degree of sophistication that it can play a starring role in the climate emergency. It gives us a God’s-eye view of the climate events taking place on Earth – and that view can be relayed to us in close to real time.
But let us be concrete. We have geospatial data to thank for the discovery of what one observer called ‘mind-boggling’ methane leaks from Turkmenistan. In May, we found that the western fuel field in Turkmenistan, on the Caspian coast, leaked more than 2.5 million tonnes of methane in the course of 2022. The eastern field emitted 1.8 million tonnes. The two fields released more emissions than the entirety of the United Kingdom, which is the 17th-biggest emitter in the world. This revelation caused the United States to pursue a diplomatic intervention in Turkmenistan with the aim of plugging the central Asian country’s vast methane leaks. This is significant: cutting methane emissions could reduce global temperatures by 0.2 degrees Celsius, due to methane’s enormous short-term climate impact. (Over a 20-year period, methane is 80 times more potent at warming than carbon dioxide.)
And consider wildfires. In July and August 2022, more than 30,000 hectares of French forest went up in flames. It was the worst wildfire season since the Landes mega-fire of 1949 – still ranked as the deadliest European wildfire since records began. Thanks to geospatial data drawn from satellites and analysed using AI and advanced geoanalytics tools, wildfires like those that tore through France can now be tracked with pinpoint accuracy, with hugely positive implications for prevention and mitigation.
The role of geospatial data in powering the voluntary carbon market
Geospatial data is now having an outsize impact on the voluntary carbon market (VCM), too. The VCM, a financing vehicle for environmental protection and emissions reduction projects, provides a vital means to accelerate the transition to net zero by combining climate impact and financial returns. Carbon emitters can offset their unavoidable emissions by buying carbon credits emitted by projects targeted at removing or reducing GHG from the atmosphere. The historical problem, however, has been a lack of transparency. In other words, market players have not been able to find out with any real accuracy whether a carbon project will in fact deliver on its environmental claims. Geospatial data and insights, drawn from extensive mapping of the Amazon basin, are now bringing a never-before-seen degree of clarity and precision to assessing the success of carbon projects.
To a great degree, the huge and increasing importance of geospatial data today is wholly bound up with the huge and increasing threat to our way of life posed by climate change. It is a combination of bold action and independent, verifiable, third-party data that will lead us out of this crisis. We must, at the very least, embrace data to make sure that the ‘era of global boiling’ does not give way to an age of fire.
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