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Menopausal Mother Nature

News about Climate Change and our Planet

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The Global Carbon Surveillance State Is Coming

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).

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