Who’s Driving Climate Change? New Data Catalogs 72,000 Polluters and Counting
Upstream from Shanghai along the Yangtze River, a sprawling factory complex in eastern China is churning out tens of millions of tons of steel a year and immense quantities of planet-warming gases. The plants owner has not disclosed how much the site emits. Now, though, researchers say that by peering down from space, they have found that the factorys emissions are likely higher than those of any other steel plant on Earth. Heres how they did it. Key title here Hottest areas Warmer areas Cooler areas Area of analysis Yangtze River Satellites detect the on a given day. 1 Coke plants STEEL PLANT Years of heat detections are analyzed to determine each plants . 2 JIANGSU PROVINCE Blast furnaces on a given day are used to estimate steel production. 3 Plant-level production estimates allow researchers to approximate plant-level emissions. 4 CHINA Detail area 1/2 mile North Satellites detect the on a given day. 1 Area of analysis JIANGSU PROVINCE STEEL PLANT Coke plants Years of heat detections are analyzed to determine each plants . 2 Yangtze River Blast furnaces on a given day are used to estimate steel production. 3 Plant-level production estimates allow researchers to approximate plant-level emissions. 4 CHINA North Detail area 1/2 mile Yangtze River Satellites detect the on a given day. Years of heat detections are analyzed to determine each plants . on a given day are used to estimate steel production. 1 2 3 Blast furnaces Coke plants STEEL PLANT Area of analysis Plant-level production estimates allow researchers to approximate plant-level emissions. 4 Beijing JIANGSU PROVINCE CHINA Detail area 1/2 mile Satellites detect the on a given day. Years of heat detections are analyzed to determine each plants . on a given day are used to estimate steel production. 1 2 3 Yangtze River Blast furnaces Coke plants STEEL PLANT Plant-level production estimates allow researchers to approximate plant-level emissions. Area of analysis 4 JIANGSU PROVINCE Beijing CHINA Detail area 1/2 mile Notes: Heat anomaly data from Oct. 25, 2021. Steel plant hot spots shown are based on average heat anomaly between 2017 and 2021. Sources: and (analysis with Sentinel-2 satellite image by Copernicus); Planet Labs (satellite image for the graphic) By Zach Levitt Their estimates are part a new global compendium of emissions released on Wednesday by , a nonprofit coalition of environmental groups, technology companies and academic scientists. By using software to scour data from satellites and other sources, Climate TRACE says it can project emissions not just for whole countries and industries, but for individual polluting facilities. It catalogs steel and cement factories, power plants, oil and gas fields, cargo ships, cattle feedlots 72,612 emitters and counting, a hyperlocal atlas of the human activities that are altering the planets chemistry. Circles are sized according to total estimated emissions from individual plants in 2021. Loading Notes: Emissions include all greenhouse gases expressed in carbon dioxide equivalents. Data includes over 800 identified steel plants. Sources: and By Zach Levitt Scientists have been measuring atmospheric concentrations of , and other greenhouse gases for decades. They know how much average levels are rising worldwide, and they know that burning of fossil fuels is the main driver. Its when they try to apportion the blame more precisely How much are specific industries and companies emitting? In which countries? that things get complicated. Governments and organizations dont have monitoring devices strapped to every smokestack and tailpipe, so they generally project emissions using measures of activity: how much coal is burned, how much steel is produced, how much traffic is on the roads. Such estimates arent always precise, however, and it can be tricky to avoid double counting. Satellites from NASA and its Japanese and Chinese counterparts can measure amounts of greenhouse gases in the column of air beneath them, but clouds and nighttime darkness obstruct their observations. And satellite measurements dont directly indicate where or when the gases were emitted. Gases mix and get blown around by weather. They linger in the sky for years, even centuries. The United Nations asks countries to report emissions to guide global climate talks, like this months climate summit in Egypt. But tallying it all up is a challenge for many governments, let alone for the companies and cities that are setting their own climate goals. The whole future of our ability to address climate change, and to avoid the most dangerous effects, hinges on our ability to have solid data, said Angel Hsu, an environmental policy expert at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We need to be able to measure things so we can manage them. Climate TRACE says it can produce emissions estimates that are more up-to-date than existing ones, and that rely less on information reported by governments about their own countries emissions. It does this largely by mining satellite imagery and other data to get a more precise measure of individual facilities production activity, then estimating their emissions. With steel plants, for instance, the group uses satellite measurements of the heat from blast furnaces to estimate steel output. (The owner of the steel plant in China, Shagang Group, declined to comment.) For power stations, Climate TRACE uses satellite images of the vapor wafting from their chimneys to predict electricity generation. The groups analysis suggests that the oil and gas industry emits far more than countries have previously reported, in part because of underestimated emissions from , or the burning of unwanted methane, and the known as . In other sectors, though, Climate TRACEs estimates broadly align with existing ones, said one of the groups researchers, Gavin McCormick. Having site-by-site data on emissions clarifies how much global warming could be mitigated just by reducing the carbon footprints of the largest polluters, Mr. McCormick said. Climate TRACE has begun working with six regional governments in Mexico, Brazil, South Africa, Spain and Italy to provide information about local emissions, said one of the groups funders, former Vice President Al Gore. More granular data can also help businesses compare suppliers to minimize their climate footprint, said Simon Fischweicher, who is the head of corporations and supply chains for the North America division of CDP, a nonprofit that collects information about companies environmental impact. We know we have a climate crisis; we dont need emissions accounting to tell us that, he said. The emissions accounting tells us where the decisions need to be made, what actions need to be taken. Climate TRACEs other backers include the partners of Generation Investment Management, a firm started by Mr. Gore; Googles philanthropic arm; and the charitable foundations of Eric Schmidt, the former chief executive of Google, and his wife, Wendy, and , a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, and his wife, Ann. Among Climate TRACEs collaborators is Minderoo Foundation, which was founded by the Australian iron-ore magnate . Mr. McCormick said Climate TRACE had zero plans to commercialize. As befits its tech roots, the group has released its data and methods to the public before submitting them for scientific peer review, a process that can take years. Mr. McCormick said he and his collaborators were planning to write an academic study based on their work soon. Why didnt they do that before? Because the world is on fire, Mr. McCormick said. Were firm believers in double-checking everything, but not a believer in, wait years before you publish. This approach has made some scientists wary. Jocelyn Turnbull, a scientist at GNS Science, a government research institute in New Zealand, said Climate TRACE still had a ways to go in demonstrating the quality of its data, though she described the project as exciting. Dr. Turnbull helps lead an initiative at the that helps scientists supply governments with information about emissions. Philippe Ciais, a researcher at the Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences near Paris, helps lead , a project that tracks daily carbon dioxide emissions. He called Climate TRACEs methods very promising. But, he said, everything which is not peer reviewed, I would be skeptical. is a climate reporter. He joined The Times in 2017 and was part of the team that won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in public service for coverage of the coronavirus pandemic.