A NASA Earth-observing satellite has helped researchers track carbon dioxide emissions for more than 100 countries. The pilot project offers a powerful new look at the carbon dioxide being emitted in these countries and how much of it is removed from the atmosphere by forests and other carbon-absorbing “sinks” within their borders. The findings demonstrate how space-based tools can support insights on Earth as nations work to achieve climate goals.
The international study, conducted by more than 60 researchers, used measurements made by NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) mission, as well as a network of surface-based observations, to quantify increases and decreases in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations from 2015 to 2020. Using this measurement-based approach, the researchers were then able to infer the balance of how much carbon dioxide was emitted and removed.
Although the OCO-2 mission was not specifically designed to estimate emissions from individual nations, the findings from the 100-plus countries come ahead of the first Global Stocktake – a process to assess the world’s collective progress toward limiting global warming.
“NASA is focused on delivering Earth science data that addresses real world climate challenges – like helping governments around the world measure the impact of their carbon mitigation efforts,” said Karen St. Germain, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
The study provides a new perspective by tracking both fossil fuel emissions and the total carbon “stock” changes in ecosystems, including trees, shrubs, and soils. The data is particularly useful for tracking carbon dioxide fluctuations related to land cover change. Emissions from deforestation alone make up a disproportionate amount of total carbon output in the Global South, which encompasses regions of Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Oceania. In other parts of the world, the findings indicate some reductions in atmospheric carbon concentrations via improved land stewardship and reforestation.
The study offers a complex picture of carbon moving through Earth’s land, ocean, and atmosphere.
In addition to direct human impacts accounted for by national inventories, unmanaged ecosystems like some tropical and boreal forests – where humans have a minimal footprint – can sequester carbon from the atmosphere, thus reducing potential global warming.
Looking forward, the researchers said their pilot project can be further refined to understand how emissions from individual nations are changing.
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