Riley Duren, chief systems engineer for the Earth Science and Technology Directorate at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is reporting from the 2014 United Nations Climate Conference in Lima, Peru.
We arrived in Lima, Peru, late last night and made our way to the United Nations climate conference venue this morning -- an impressive complex known locally as the Pentagonito or “Little Pentagon.” As host country and city, Peru and Lima are representative of several key fronts in the international effort to confront climate change. Peru is home to some of the most significant tropical forests on Earth that are the focus of programs to preserve their vital role in storing carbon and critically endangered ecosystems (more about that tomorrow). With a population approaching 10 million people, Lima itself is a rapidly growing megacity -- one of many in the developing world.
The latter topic is the focus of this post and the event I’m participating in later today at the US Center: “Understanding the Carbon Emissions of Cities.” I’ll be joining colleagues from the US National Institute of Standards and Technology, Arizona State University, Laboratoire Des Sciences du Climat et de l'Environnement (France), and Universidade de São Paulo (Brazil) in presenting the motivation for and recent scientific advances in monitoring urban carbon pollution. There won’t be a live stream but the event will be recorded - keep an eye on the US State Department’s YouTube page where it should be posted this weekend.
So what is “carbon pollution” and why should we care about it? Most of us are familiar with the general topic of air pollution; just ask anybody who has asthma or knows a friend or family member with respiratory problems. Cities are notorious sources of air pollutants or smog -- including visible particles (aerosols) and invisible but caustic ozone. One can find many examples of success stories where air quality has improved in response to clean-air standards as well as horror stories in cities lacking such standards. However, this familiar topic of air quality is mostly limited to short-lived pollutants -- compounds that only persist in the atmosphere for hours or days. Those pollutants are important because of human health impacts but they’re not primary drivers of climate change. Carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (another carbon-based molecule) on the other hand, are long-lived gases that trap heat in the atmosphere for many years. Once CO2 and methane are in the atmosphere, they remain there for a long time -- centuries, in the case of CO2. Most people are unaware of the presence of CO2 and methane because they’re invisible and odorless and don’t have an immediate impact on health, but those gases are THE big drivers of climate change.
There are many sources of CO2 on Earth, including natural emissions that, prior to the industrial revolution, were balanced by removals from natural carbon scrubbers like forests and oceans. However human activity is rapidly changing the balance of CO2 in the atmosphere, leading to an unprecedented growth rate. Most of these human CO2 emissions come from burning fossil fuels like coal and oil. These fossil emissions are responsible for about 85 percent of humanity’s CO2 footprint today and, globally, they’re continuing to accelerate. So any successful effort to avoid dangerous climate change must have fossil CO2 mitigation at its core. Managing methane is also important given its greater heat trapping potential than CO2.
Why focus on carbon from cities? It turns out that urbanization – the increasing migration of people from rural areas to urban centers – has concentrated over half the world’s population, over 70 percent of fossil CO2 emissions and a significant amount of methane emissions into less than 3 percent of the Earth’s land area! So cities and their power plants represent the largest cause of human carbon emissions. In 2010, the 50 largest cities alone were collectively the third largest fossil CO2 emitter after China and the US – and there are thousands of cities. At the same time, in many cases, emissions from cities are undergoing rapid growth because of urbanization.
But there’s also a silver lining here.
Many cities are beginning to serve as “first responders” to climate change. While national governments continue to negotiate over country-level commitments, mayors of some of the largest cities are already taking action to reduce their cities’ carbon footprints, and they’re working together through voluntary agreements. Additionally, the concentrated nature of urban carbon emissions makes measuring those emissions easier than measuring entire countries.
Measuring the carbon emissions of cities is important (you can’t manage what you can’t measure) and challenging given the number of sources and key sectors and uncertainty about how much each contributes to the total carbon footprint. For example, in a typical city, CO2 is emitted from the transportation sector (cars, trucks, airports, seaports), energy sector (power plants), commercial and industrial sectors (businesses, factories) and residential sector (heating and cooking in homes). Likewise, urban methane sources include landfills, wastewater treatment plants, and leaks in natural gas pipelines. Mayors, regional councils, businesses and citizens have a number of options to reduce their carbon emissions. Measuring the effect of those efforts and understanding where and why they’re not having the intended impact can prove critical to successful mitigation. It also has economic implications -- toward identifying the most cost-effective actions and supporting emissions trading (carbon markets) between cities and other sub-national entities.
How can we measure the carbon emissions of cities? That’s the focus of the Megacities Carbon Project and the topic of our event in Lima today. Briefly, this involves combining data from satellites and surface-monitoring stations that track concentrations of CO2, methane and other gases in the atmosphere over and around cities with other, local data sets that contain information about key sectors. Pilot efforts in Los Angeles, Paris, Sao Paulo and other cities are beginning to demonstrate the utility of these methodologies. Satellites like NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 and other future missions, when combined with a global network of urban carbon monitoring stations, could ultimately play an important role in enabling more effective mitigation action by the world’s largest carbon emitters: cities.