JASON: Can Climate Change Agreements be Verified?

01.26.11 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

If meaningful international agreements are reached to limit or reduce the emission of greenhouse gases (GHG) such as carbon dioxide that contribute to global warming, then it will be necessary to verify compliance with such agreements.  This turns out to be a challenging problem, involving technical, analytical and political dimensions.  The JASON scientific advisory panel was asked to investigate the options.

“For cooperative countries, the technology currently exists to directly monitor GHG emissions sufficiently well on an annual basis to support U.S. decision-making on international agreements,” the JASONs found (pdf).

On the other hand, “For non-cooperative countries, there is currently no demonstrated capability to estimate country-level emissions using direct measurements of atmospheric CO2 that has sufficient accuracy to support monitoring of compliance with international agreements.”

Measuring devices, including satellite-borne devices, can be used to determine atmospheric concentrations of CO2, a principal greenhouse gas.  But to estimate the original emission based on observed concentrations, it is necessary to model the transport of the gas from the point of emission to the point of measurement, a difficult task which in turn depends on accurate meteorological data and a correct understanding of natural CO2 emission and absorption processes.  “In many cases, modeling uncertainties will dominate measurement uncertainty,” the JASONs noted.  “Modeling errors are the most insidious problem as they will often not give any indication of their presence….”

An alternative (or complement) to direct measurements is to monitor changes in the energy infrastructure of countries of interest, including signs of development of alternative energy sources and indicators of fossil fuel consumption.  “Technical methods currently exist that can be used to monitor energy infrastructure of large GHG emitting countries.  They benefit from, but do not require, the cooperation of the emitting country.”

The JASONs recommended that the U.S. government “acquire and maintain a detailed technical knowledge of the energy infrastructure of countries with large greenhouse gas emissions, and identify and observe the signatures needed to quantify their energy use.”  A new organization may be needed to fulfill this task, they said.

The new JASON report, which was performed under contract to the National Nuclear Security Administration, builds upon a related 2010 study by the National Research Council and an otherwise unidentified “recent study by the MEDEA group,” an intelligence community advisory body.

A copy of the JASON report was obtained by Secrecy News.  See “Methods for Remote Determination of CO2 Emissions,” JASON Report No. JSR-10-300, January 2011.