The EU’s eyes in the sky will be able to help fight the climate crisis by tracking where CO2 emissions are coming from.

Copernicus, the bloc’s observation service of our planet, can already measure concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

But it is teaming up with the European Space Agency (ESA) to develop satellites to track the source of these emissions.

The effective monitoring of CO2 emissions is considered crucial in holding countries to account over various climate promises.

It is hoped they will be launched around 2026 and will be capable of measuring anthropogenic CO2 emissions.

These are man-made greenhouse gases — for example from the burning of fossil fuels — as opposed to naturally occurring emissions.

To understand the insights of this landmark project, Euronews spoke to Hugo Zunker, the EU Commission’s policy officer in charge of Copernicus and Professor Bernard Pinty, a scientific officer.

How is it possible to measure human-made and natural CO2 separately?

“The natural carbon cycle is pretty well known, even if we have to improve our knowledge of it. But the new technology and models will have such a precision that will be able to detect the ‘plumes’ of CO2 emitted by cities, but also large polluters like power plants” said Professor Pinty.

“It’s at the edge of what’s feasible with the current technology,” said Zunker.

The European Space Agency is already working on modelling the high-performance satellites.

The keys: cutting-edge technology and international cooperation

Satellites will measure 200 kilometre-bands of every location of the planet every three days, with a resolution of 2×2 kilometres.

The key to the success of the project is the cooperation. “It would be impossible to build this in such short notice,” says Zunker.

Among them are EU agencies such as Copernicus, ESA, European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT) and international space and weather services like the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the World Meteorological Organization.

The EU has also set a consortium of 20 European organisations working on the project called CO2 Human Emissions Project.

In addition to the satellite data, the system will be combined with “in situ” measurements to validate and fill the gaps of satellite observation. Building the network of agencies and agreements to collect the data is one of the great challenges, apart from the technological one.

The huge amount of data will be processed by EUMETSAT services and the experts of ECMWF will make sense of it thanks to state-of-the-art computer and mathematical modelling.

“It will hopefully work as a weather forecast service,” said Zunker.

Why is it necessary?

CO2 is an “elusive” gas. The natural and human-emitted CO2 mixes quickly in the atmosphere so a system to measure it at the source was needed. There are also gaps in the knowledge of the carbon dioxide circulation in the atmosphere and the effects of anthropogenic CO2 disruptions in the natural carbon cycle. Nevertheless, the new mission will also be able to measure methane, the second most important greenhouse effect causing gas, or nitrogen dioxide.

International agreements on climate change — from the different COP meetings to the EU’s Green Deal — include emission transparency policies. Such a programme will not only help to monitor countries’ performances but also detect anomalies.

“It will help trigger the alarms,” said Zunker, allowing authorities to identify and correct the black spots.

When will it be operating?

The programme is set to start by 2026.

“The date is very important because we want it to be fully operating for the 2028 stocktake included in the Paris Agreement,” said Zunker. The stocktake is when the countries have to release the progress of their efforts to curb emissions. The first stocktake is set to take place in 2023 and the second should be in 2028, hopefully, based on the new CO2 measuring system data.

How much will it cost?

The project is a step closer to become a reality after the European Space Agency’s ministerial meeting has approved its most generous budget ever with €14.4 billion for the 2021-2027 period of which roughly €2.5 bn for the Copernicus Earth monitoring programme.

Still pending, the additional €16 bn proposed by the EU Commission, yet to be approved by member states and the EU Parliament.

The new C02 measurement project will cost roughly €1 bn. More than half of this budget is needed only to build the satellites.

Mauro Facchini, who heads up the Copernicus unit at the EU Commission told Euronews: “Space is not just for space geeks, space is really for our citizens and for our planet.

“Copernicus is already recognised as probably the reference in the world.

“With Copernicus, we are able to observe the situation on the land, on the oceans, the air quality looking at catastrophes… and our ambition is to have new observation for CO2 and that’s why we are cooperating the ESA in order to develop new satellites that will be able to show anthropogenic CO2 emissions.”

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