Better emissions measurement is a first step to supporting a green economy

Accurate measurement is critical both to informing policies for emissions reduction, and enabling businesses to meet the targets that have been set. And a measurement infrastructure is a necessary first step to support business and government in meeting climate targets.

There are three pressing issues: providing accurate climate forecasts, underpinning carbon markets and ensuring green technology can be developed and commercialised.

International agreements and national policies for mitigation of and adaptation to climate change are based on an understanding of the likely impacts of climate change. We know the climate is changing but the extent and timing of impacts is uncertain.

Getting the estimate right

The problem is that estimates of temperature increases by 2100 vary from 2C to 10C. Nowhere are we measuring climate data with sufficient accuracy to provide the data for reliable models.

To address this, we need to develop new standards and validate sensors used in ground and satellite-based measurements. Longer term, measurement scientists are looking at launching a satellite that can calibrate earth observation satellites in orbit.

If funded, this project could address many measurement problems, providing ten times the accuracy we have now, and giving us data to create reliable climate models.

Another area of focus must be supporting infrastructure for carbon trading, pricing and reporting. 

Companies under emissions trading schemes purchase carbon allowances up to a given limit or “cap”. If they reduce emissions they can profit by selling allowances to companies that are not able to reduce their emissions quite so easily or cheaply. It is important that this system be supported, so that a tonne of carbon produced or eliminated is the same the world over.

We also need to develop ever more accurate ways to measure stack emissions, and respond to new challenges as they arise.

Reliable measurement

Such challenges include providing reliable physical measurements that are used to create emissions factors. It is important that carbon accounting schemes use these to calculate net emissions. They must also be able to confirm that carbon offset projects based on sequestration aren’t leaking emissions back into the atmosphere.

Innovators are rising to the challenges set by policies, creating viable alternatives to fossil fuels. Energy efficiency products and materials are a growing market. It is important, therefore, that these innovators have a system of support for the development of such technologies.

Technologies such as electric cars, solar panels and energy efficient light bulbs all face measurement challenges. Most need to test issues such as durability, and model how they will work in-situ. Renewable energy technologies produce different energy levels than power stations, so we need to understand power quality to develop smart grids to accommodate them.

All such technologies need validation of their green claims for investors and potential customers to take them seriously. This will ensure low carbon and green energy technologies can become commercially viable, attract investment, win customers and meet their potential to reduce global emissions.

Jane Burston is head of the newly-launched Centre for Carbon Measurement at the UK’s National Physical Laboratory. The centre has been established specifically to help support the low carbon economy. 

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