Al Gore’s New Tool Can Zoom in on the Biggest Polluters in Your Town

A screenshot of Climate TRACE’s tool showing enteric fermentation emissions from facilities in the U.S.
A screenshot of Climate TRACE’s tool showing enteric fermentation emissions from facilities in the U.S.

If you’ve ever wondered how much methane the landfill in your neighborhood emits, there’s now a way to potentially find out. A promising new tool can zoom in on spots around the world in various industries to measure just how much greenhouse gases those locations and facilities are emitting.

The mapping tool, released last week at COP27 by the organization Climate TRACE, uses hundreds of satellites, thousands of mounted sensors, and various artificial intelligence models to measure the global emissions of different greenhouse gases from major sectors, including oil and gas production, waste disposal and management, agriculture, forestry and land use, transportation and power.

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The tool is remarkable in its specificity: It can trace emissions from individual sites like landfills, power plants, and cattle farms, giving both an overall picture of global emissions from certain industries as well as incredibly detailed information on specific locations. Using the map, you can zoom in on emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide—as well as all of those emissions together—by different sectors, and see where some of our biggest greenhouse gas problems are coming from.

The level of granular detail you can access using this tool is really something. Want to find the landfill with the most CO2 emissions in the U.S.? That’d be a facility in Michigan. How about the mining operation with the most CO2 emissions in the world? It’s an iron mine in Australia. The biggest single source of agricultural methane emissions from cattle worldwide? A beef farm in Texas. Even emissions from moving entities like cargo ships can be tracked. If the interactive map isn’t your jam, all of the data and associated methodology are available for download, so you can play around with Excel files of cement emissions to your heart’s content.

“Of course, the world has long known what the overall amount of greenhouse gas pollution in the atmosphere is,” Al Gore, one of the founding members of the coalition, told Protocol. “What’s different about this [database] is the accurate apportioning of who’s responsible for what and the granularity that allows us a focus on specific emissions sources.” Gore told Protocol he had “no doubt” that the data “will be put to a lot of use in negotiations for sure.”

The entire dataset put together, Climate TRACE says, reveals some pretty staggering findings. The top 500 sites with the largest emissions in the world, which include individual power plants, oil and gas production fields, and other high-emitter locations, are a tiny fraction of the data but represent 14% of the world’s emissions in 2021, more than all the emissions of the U.S. About half of the biggest 50 emitters, the data show, are oil and gas production fields.

There’s a whole lot of utility to having a wealth of third-party data like this available on a public forum. A lot of industries self-report their emissions, which can lead to some big gaps between what companies claim is going on and the reality. A report released by the International Energy Agency last year found that the fossil fuel industry is especially bad at this, undercounting its methane emissions by as much as 70%. Getting a more accurate third-party picture of where emissions are actually coming from is the first step in increased regulations to bring those emissions down.

But as Climate TRACE notes, pinpointing emissions from a specific location is just the start of figuring out where to assign blame.

“Consider something as ‘simple’ as an individual power plant and its owner,” the organization said in a release posted to its site. “Should the emissions be assigned to the immediate owner? To a parent company if it’s wholly owned? To equity investors? To the offtaker of the power, whether a utility or another entity? These are tough decisions, but we can’t even consider making such decisions if we can’t map emissions down to specific sources.”

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