The coalition of researchers and tech companies is leaderless and unincorporated, and its data is completely free and public. “We felt it was essential that anyone trust us,” founding member Gavin McCormick told Protocol.
Climate TRACE’s mission may seem daunting, but it’s a mission that a number of big names in tech believe in. John Doerr endorsed it, and Gore is a founding member and donor along with partners from his company, Generation Investment Management. Google.org – the charity arm of Google – and Eric and Wendy Schmidt’s Schmidt Futures philanthropic venture are also helping to get Climate TRACE’s efforts off the ground.
What became Climate TRACE began as a student project led by McCormick at the University of California, Berkeley, aimed at tracking emissions from power plants using AI and satellites. “We started it for fun,” McCormick said, in what is a very corny definition of a good time. “It was a lot by accident. There was no founding vision, no deep belief that what we were doing would save the world.
But things started to get more serious when the researchers decided to apply for funding through Google.org’s AI Impact Challenge “on a lark,” according to McCormick. They ended up winning, in 2018, and the snowball on what would become Climate TRACE began to roll.
Gore’s office contacted shortly after. McCormick said Gore told him he’d been “expecting something like this for years” and asked if it was possible to do more than monitor power plants. “Can you monitor everything? asked the former vice president.
Gore, for his part, had advocated for the use of AI to better detect sources of emissions as early as his vice-presidency. “But the technology wasn’t mature at that time,” he told Protocol.
McCormick told Gore what he wanted was still not possible. After all, the team was just students or, in McCormick’s case, a dropout, as he had left his doctorate. program to focus full-time on managing the project, now a non-profit organization dubbed WattTime. (The NGO now uses emissions data compiled by Climate TRACE to help companies calculate the least polluting time to use electricity.)
“But we realized that if we partner with enough organizations … between all of us, we can each have a bite to eat,” McCormick said.
Thus, Climate TRACE was born. “TRACE” stands for Tracking Atmospheric Carbon Emissions in Real Time. (“Nacking the acronym is a big step,” Gore joked.) Today, it’s a coalition of more than 50 organizations, ranging from for-profit companies to academic research labs, that meets twice a week. week on Zoom to undertake 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 first global emissions inventory, which can be broken down by sector and by country. “It’s the first time this has been done, and the work has continued and intensified,” Gore said.
In October, the coalition plans to release the first-ever asset-level inventory, which will show the greenhouse gas emissions of individual power plants, steel mills or freighters. Climate TRACE also plans to rank the 500 largest sources of greenhouse gas pollution in each sub-sector of the global economy. It will come, Gore noted, just in time for major international climate talks to be held in Egypt. In addition, the coalition is also working to develop APIs that could help investors trying to decarbonize their portfolios, supply chain managers of companies trying to reduce emissions, or NGOs wanting to better target their campaigns against the polluters.
At a time when companies and countries are making major commitments to reduce emissions, data from Climate TRACE could be a revelation. There is currently no truly independent source verifying that countries and companies are actually doing what they promise. In fact, accountability has been sorely lacking in almost all contexts; the Paris Agreement is not binding and the climate plans of companies are ultimately only beautiful promises. In the absence of strong, binding regulations or agreements, an independent body to publicly name and blame polluters is one of the best tools to stop bad actors from frying the planet.
Carbon dioxide is notoriously difficult 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. Essentially, this means that just because you see carbon dioxide near a power plant doesn’t mean the power plant emitted it, due to confounding factors such as background pollution, wind, and d other types of weather conditions.
In the absence of strong, binding regulations or agreements, an independent body to publicly name and blame 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 “everything we can physically see” to detect pollution and its source. These include steam coming out of cooling towers, thermal infrared heat, column-embedded nitrogen oxide (a co-pollutant), and even ripples in lakes near power plants, which can indicate if the water is used for cooling purposes.
Climate TRACE collects data from ground-based carbon dioxide sensors, the most reliable being the Continuous Emissions Monitoring System, which monitors every power plant in the United States. These sensors are of high quality, but there are not very many of them. Climate TRACE uses them, however, to validate other data sources that are not as high quality or granular, such as satellite data. (Climate TRACE relies on publicly funded satellites like those launched and operated by NASA and the European Space Agency, as well as commercial satellite data they purchase from places like Planet and GHGSat.) helps train the coalition’s AI.
According to Gore, data from Climate TRACE will enable everyone interested in solving the climate crisis – businesses, investors, NGOs, governments – to take action that can “quickly and dramatically” reduce emissions. Until Climate TRACE, “we didn’t have actionable data,” he said.
Climate TRACE collects data from carbon dioxide sensors on the ground as well as satellites in space.Photo: Climate TRACE
It is no coincidence that the group plans to publish its next inventory just before the next United Nations climate conference. “All current greenhouse gas emissions data sources, other than Climate TRACE, are derived from a single bottleneck source,” Gore said. And this is self-reported emissions data submitted to the UN, which only developed countries are required to report. These reports are often five or more years out of date and contain “major omissions”, Gore pointed out.
There are “huge biases in accounting procedures,” Tans said, so any effort to add more precision and specificity to country-level reporting would be helpful. (A Washington Post investigation before last year’s climate talks confirmed it.)
True to its word, Climate TRACE has already found inconsistencies between reported emissions and what it has detected. One of the biggest divergences comes, perhaps unsurprisingly, from the oil and gas sector, which, according to McCormick, “is significantly less honest than all the other sectors.” Emissions from production and refining were about double what had been reported to the UN
“Again, this is only for countries that are required to report their emissions,” Gore pointed out. Climate TRACE estimates show that more than a billion tonnes of additional emissions have gone unaccounted for by countries that are not required to report them.
Climate TRACE has another advantage. Unlike efforts like Tans, whose lab is within the US Department of Commerce, the coalition’s work is not subject to the whims of a changing administration.
“I thought it was something the government should do. However, I have my doubts,” Tans said, pointing to the fact that President Donald Trump had tried to cut NOAA funding drastically during his tenure. Although Trump was unsuccessful, Tans said “there is a vulnerability there” for data from federal agencies.
Despite his track record, Gore also strongly believes that independent coalitions like Climate TRACE are better placed to undertake this emissions tracking work than the government. The evidence speaks for itself, he said: “Governments haven’t done it,” in part because it’s hard to do. The AI and machine learning powering the efforts are “relatively new” and only now being leveraged to “accurately identify emissions in every sector.”
Gore strongly believes that independent coalitions like Climate TRACE are better placed to undertake this emissions tracking work than the government.
The coalition’s work is far from over. “We’re recruiting every day,” McCormick said. One area he is still struggling with and seeking additional organizational support for is the detection of indoor fossil fuel use and emissions from items such as cooktops and water heaters, which are naturally difficult to track by satellite. Soil carbon is yet another source of emissions difficult to track from space that the group hopes to detect.
McCormick recounted a conversation he had with Gore in which the former vice president told him that as one of the people responsible for waking up everyone to the climate crisis, he thinks it’s went too far “on the catastrophic side”. Panic now becomes a bigger risk. When people are in panic mode, they stop looking for solutions.
In McCormick’s view, Climate TRACE is cause for optimism, because the group isn’t just calling out the “bad guys”; it is also to reveal these solutions. Through the work of the coalition, for example, the shipping industry has discovered that a slowdown “dramatically” reduces emissions, a relatively simple solution.
“I’m by nature a pessimist, and you wouldn’t know it from my face, because I’m just looking at really promising data,” he said.