New tool tracks regional carbon levels

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Scientists have developed a tool to measure greenhouse gases at a regional level, which could track the effects of carbon reduction schemes.

CarbonTracker is a computer model, unveiled last week (21 March) by scientists from the US-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Researchers say it will provide a more detailed picture of how emissions from human activity cause climate change.

Previously, scientists could only record levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide ― the major greenhouse gas believed to have caused global warming ― from remote locations such as Antarctica and the Arctic.

This provides only general pictures of global carbon dioxide emissions.

Measuring the levels of carbon dioxide above densely populated areas, such as towns and cities, is difficult as levels fluctuate constantly.

And because atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases continually diffuse away from their emission points, there is no way to measure the atmospheric carbon dioxide in specific geographical areas.   

Current measurements of regional emissions are based on indirect data, such as gasoline sales records and energy consumption data from energy organisations and national governments.

CarbonTracker can process data from 135 ecosystems and 11 ocean basins worldwide. It then calculates carbon release or uptake by oceans, wildfires, and human activities such as fossil fuel combustion.

This data is then transformed into a colour-coded map of carbon sources and storage sinks. It can also distinguish between changes in the natural carbon cycle and those occurring due to human activity.

Pieter Tans, head of NOAA’s Carbon Cycle Greenhouse Gases group that developed the CarbonTracker, says that even emissions over periods as small as ten days can be detected by CarbonTracker.

"At this time we trust our results only on large spatial scales, like one fifth of the United States, but the method is capable of much finer resolution if we have denser data," Tans told SciDev.Net.

"CarbonTracker’s potential is enormous," he added.

Though initially sceptical, Zhang Chengyi, of the Beijing Climate Centre under China Meteorology Administration, says the work could have huge impacts on carbon emissions.

"For developing countries, which are likely to carry out extensive emission reduction programmes through clean development schemes, the NOAA tool will have a significant role in measuring the real effect of the emission reductions," Zhang told SciDev.Net.