For decades, those of us wondering why so little action had been taken to reduce carbon emissions, and why the public felt so little urgency about that failure, would sometimes lament that carbon dioxide was invisible. Unlike the pollution that smogged up cities, set rivers on fire and inspired the Clean Air and Water Acts here and similar legislation abroad, the stuff that was damaging the climate was being put into the atmosphere without anyone really seeing it.
That’s why one of the most fascinating developments from this year’s major climate conference, COP27, which kicked off Nov. 6 with the U.N. secretary general António Guterres declaring that the world was on a “highway to climate hell,” is a new online tool released by the nonprofit coalition Climate Trace that allows us to see emissions in near-real time.
For a while, we’ve used ballpark estimates for emissions from countries, industries and the planet as a whole. The point of the Climate Trace project is to bring it down to the level of individual polluting facilities: to make it possible to track climate-damaging carbon released from more than 72,000 “steel and cement factories, power plants, oil and gas fields, cargo ships, cattle feedlots,” as The Times put it — to name just a handful of the sources.
The Climate Trace project doesn’t turn that carbon from invisible to red or green, and it is only one of many recent efforts to better assess the real-time state of emissions rather than imprecise approximations and modeling. But it marks another step toward what is beginning to seem like the inevitable development of a sort of global carbon surveillance state — one which, even independent of any global enforcement mechanism, promises to change some aspects of the conventional picture of climate change and what is causing it.
The basics, of course, remain the same: The world’s carbon emissions are produced primarily from the burning of fossil fuel, and the power, transportation and industrial sectors dominate. But examining the flow of pollution in a more granular and detailed way does change some features of the carbon landscape in three key ways.
To begin with, methane begins to look much more significant. Typically, when we talk about emissions we talk about carbon dioxide, of which about 40 gigatons a year are released globally. But the true total figure of planet-warming emissions, calculated using a standard called carbon dioxide equivalent, is about 50 gigatons each year, with most of the additional 10 gigatons coming from methane, another greenhouse gas, produced both from industrial activity like fracking and from agriculture, land-use changes and melting permafrost. In recent years there’s been a flurry of research documenting the sources of methane, which had been somewhat secret and elusive before. The studies almost invariably found that much more of it was being released than was previously acknowledged. (A study published in 2019, for instance, suggests that oil and gas emissions in the south central region of the United States were twice the Environmental Protection Agency’s estimate.)
Second, it starts to seem less intuitive that we should build our understanding of emissions and decarbonization around the unit of the nation. For most of the decades in which laypeople have been worrying about climate, countries have been the conventional framework for tabulating emissions because they were the basic building block of climate policy — and because our best hopes for cutting emissions seemed to rest on things like national carbon taxes and renewable subsidies, we tracked progress country by country as well.
But the atmosphere doesn’t recognize borders, and the Trace satellites show outsize damage being done by, for example, an oil and gas field in Algeria producing more than 73 million tons of emissions, an iron and steel factory in China producing 22 million tons and a coal-powered power plant in West Virginia producing 10 million tons. (You can rabbit-hole through the mesmerizing and intuitive data here.)
Removing borders from our model of carbon emissions doesn’t just draw attention to polluting sites and industries, as the Trace satellite data suggests, it also raises the question of who within those countries is responsible — which individuals have the largest carbon footprints. And while at the moment that data is as invisible to satellites as it is to the naked eye, the sub-national distribution of emissions has been a growing preoccupation of climate researchers in recent years, with more and more attention paid particularly to the unequal distribution of emissions within countries (as opposed to the much more known unequal distribution between countries).
The emerging surveillance state also points the way to a third change in the way we think about emissions, offering another piece of the emerging framework for global sanctions and climate litigation. In the United States, dozens of lawsuits are already proceeding against individual companies, part of a broader global movement to push climate action into the courts to hold nations accountable to their own promises, as well as corporations for their damages and greenwashing. Clarity of data helps here, as it will in any future effort to incorporate emissions into trade agreements, too.
Sunshine isn’t a simple solution or even a real disinfectant when it comes to climate — we’ve done more damage to the planet’s future since nearly 1,700 scientists signed a warning to humanity about it 30 years ago than in all the history of humanity that came before. But one hopes, at least, that knowing more will be better than knowing less, in part by making clear that warming is not the vague result of industrial civilization in general but of the very particular one we have built — and which we can now watch corroding our future in real time, whatever the world’s leaders do with that information.
David Wallace-Wells (@dwallacewells), a writer for Opinion and a columnist for The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Uninhabitable Earth.”