As more countries, companies, and cities adopt carbon-neutral targets and net zero pledges, the old phrase “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” has a renewed sense of urgency.
Measuring greenhouse gas emissions and sinks has been a pillar of the UNFCCC from the outset, with climate data from countries conveyed via the National Inventory Report (NIR) annually or biannually. NIRs are based on rigorous and evolving IPCC methodology in which state actors are the principal unit of measurement of climate action.
As COP 27 has focused on implementation, new climate data platforms intended to complement NIRs are advancing quickly, in particular providing real-time GHG monitoring. Most NIRs contain GHG data that is roughly two years old by the time it is formally reported. Since many net-zero plans now contain detailed interim targets, checking implementation progress against actual data becomes critical. So too does using more granular GHG emission data to measure the implementation progress of companies or sub-federal entities like cities.
There has thus been a sharp increase in the demand for climate data that is both generated in real-time and highly granular. For example, the Tropical Forest Alliance’s new voluntary standards unveiled at COP 27 – the Agricultural Sector Roadmap to 1.5° have the objective of removing deforestation from palm oil, soy, cattle, and cocoa global value chains. To measure how that objective is being met, the standards will require companies to measure and disclose emissions from land-use change by 2024, as part of their corporate-level GHG emissions inventory.
Climate data has also become the common currency for verifying net zero pledges made by the financial sector. At this week’s G20 summit in Bali, leaders endorsed the G20 Sustainable Finance report which calls on financial entities that have adopted net zero targets to develop a “thorough baseline” of their current portfolio GHG emissions, disclose data for Scope 1 and Scope 2 GHG emissions, and prepare for a phased-in approach to Scope 3 emissions reporting. The G20 report also points to the importance of wider standards convergence including around the new International Sustainability Standards (ISSB). The newly proposed ISSB standards include clear GHG reporting standards.
A similar message comes from the report of the UN High-Level Expert Group on Net Zero Emission Commitments of Non-State Entities, released during COP 27, which recommends that net zero targets must be backed by the annual disclosure of GHG data that is robust, timely and verified.
There are many other examples of non-state actors demanding climate data to measure their progress to carbon neutrality. The good news is that this demand is being matched by a new generation of climate data capable of delivering real-time information based on actual monitoring, at a facility-specific as well as wider value-chain level. For example, one of the stars of COP 27 is the Climate Trace platform, designed to provide real-time GHG data covering from roughly 70,000 emissions sources such as cement factories, oil and gas facilities, and airports, pulled together by the direct observation of roughly 300 satellites and thousands of in situ sensors.
Other satellite-based sources of real-time GHG data were announced at COP 27. Of note, UNEP launched the Methane Alert and Response System (MARS) designed to detect large-scale methane emissions in real-time, and alert governments, companies, and operators, to support rapid mitigation. MARS begins with large point methane emissions sources in the oil and gas sector, and then plans to expand to cover sources from coal, waste, rice, and livestock. This new platform complements other real-time methane emission platforms, such as Carbon Mapper.
These new tools are allowing climate data to catch up with satellite-based remote sensing systems that have been around for decades. INPE’s Landsat-based PRODES in Brazil has been used since the 1990s as the authoritative source to track deforestation in the Amazon. Platforms like Planet Labs, WRI’s Global Forest Watch, and the Early Warning eXplorer (EWX) link together different satellite data platforms.
Other platforms to assemble data for more real-time decision-making include the Systematic Observations Financing Facility (SOFF), which began observations in 2022, using time-series algorithms to measure in a near continuous way land cover and land-use change, including measuring real-time deforestation rates. SOFF is one of many climate monitoring systems intended to link climate adaptation with financing programs such as REDD+.
Another layer of climate data platforms involves those designed to measure and manage company operations. Microsoft’s newly launched Cloud for Sustainability and Salesforce Net Zero Cloud are anticipating a jump in company demand for timely climate data to cover evolving accounting regulations for Scope 1, 2, and 3 GHG emissions. Companies turning to these new systems will need to figure out how they will complement well-established standards such as the GHG Protocol, CDP, or other standards.
A recent U.S. National Academies report on climate data stresses the importance of bridging top-down and bottom-up climate data systems in ways that make it easier for the end user not to be overwhelmed by a proliferation of data sources and systems.
New CCICED work on Climate Data:
In November 2021, China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment highlighted the need for a comprehensive and robust climate data system to support carbon peaking and carbon neutrality pathways, as well as to support well-functioning and credible carbon markets. In late 2022, CCICED gave the green light to prepare a short, focused Special Policy Study on climate data. This new work will complement a few other CCICED working groups, notably on climate change, green finance, and digitization.