As Forest fires engulfed Canada and cast long and smoggy shadows on America’s east coast, a number of researchers and new technologies began to operate. Canadian fire released 54.8 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere, more than double the next highest boreal fire since records began in 2003.
Accurate tracking of this massive carbon release helped inform authorities dealing with particulate pollution and helped firefighters battle the inferno with precise measurements of carbon release. Such precise carbon measurement is the result of a unique wave of precision innovation carbon footprint measurement originating from environmental monitoring. This technology has survived its first trial by fire and is about to change environmental legislation.
One of the biggest challenges facing environmental legislation is enforcement and monitoring. The atmosphere is an easily exploitable public good, and once carbon is released into it, there is rarely a way to determine where it came from beyond a vast geographic extent. This inability to accurately identify and track emissions has influenced and contributed to all current environmental legislation greenwashing – where organizations disseminate misleading or deceptive advertising to actively present an environmentally responsible image to the public. Scientists and companies recognized the unmet need and invested in fine-tuning the technologies and methodologies used to track carbon. If carbon can be tracked more accurately, the regulatory options available to combat climate change will increase drastically.
Big companies like Microsoft
Other companies avoided integration with existing infrastructure or institutions and instead assumed the role of independent observers. A company based in the United Kingdom Silver uses a combination of satellites, advanced imagery and artificial intelligence to track carbon emissions in real time. This is done using machine learning and 3-D laser scanning of areas to accurately calculate emissions. This was used with their forestry initiative, which uses their methodology to study the carbon stored in trees to calculate the effectiveness of various reforestation efforts. By relying on this external model, Sylvera gained more independence. However, this independence brought a significant financial burden. Not only did Sylvera incur costs to develop and improve its technological processes, it also chose not to integrate with existing infrastructure, which often leads to obtaining government subsidies.
These two carbon tracking models, integrated vs. independent, they share a common problem: they are still almost entirely dependent on cooperation with voluntary actors. Companies using the independent model could theoretically take an adversarial role and simply scout any factory they see fit, but financial constraints prevent this. Instead, companies using both models must rely on being compensated for their services by the same companies they investigate. In rare cases, this could be legitimate altruism, but often it is part of a selfish effort to identify inefficiencies, provide an air of greenwashing, or claim tax breaks.
Fortunately, this shortcoming can be removed. The most important thing that state actors can do is to create a regulated, auditable and fungible carbon credit and encourage private environmental innovation. State actors should also consider allowing regulatory agencies to enter into contracts with companies working with these emerging technologies, which would allow sudden and accurate monitoring of any CO2-generating activities at any time.
There is every reason to believe that carbon tracking will succeed. Thanks to innovative monitoring models complemented by new technologies, this is more likely than ever. Its success could make the carbon trading system easier to implement by making one of its biggest gripes moot: monitoring and enforcement.