One of the major announcements in Obama’s recent climate change speech was that he was going to "put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution from our power plants" by having the EPA impose standards. He can do that, because greenhouse gas emissions count as air pollution—and also because we track those emissions carefully.
"90% of the CO2 coming out of power plants in the United States is directly monitored," says Dr. Kevin Gurney, senior sustainability scientist at Arizona State University. The other 10% is monitored, too, just not as it comes out of the smoke stack. Gurney says that some other countries, like South Africa and Australia, also have decent data. "But after that things get pretty bad," says Gurney. "We literally have a list of names [of power plants] and a couple other very basic statistics."
Gurney is trying to combat that lack of public data with Ventus Project, a crowdsourcing initiative that’s building on the cursory list of names by asking power plant employees and nosy neighbors to chip in with information as basic as the plants’ exact location. "We try to do this ourselves in Google Earth and it can be done," says Gurney. "It’s just so unbelievably labor intensive…It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack."
This kind of hyperlocal emission data is important for climate models, because climate change isn’t all about what’s happening in the sky. "We get a helping hand from the biosphere and land, because they’re kind of soaking up half of what we’re putting in the atmosphere," says Gurney. "The concern is that that’s going to stop." Mashing up satellite data and better location-specific emission data will hopefully help scientists like Gurney get to the bottom of exactly how vegetation is soaking up fossil fuel emissions, and if and when that process might halt.
The Ventus Project has a long road ahead. The initiative currently has fewer than 300 registered users and 600 data points entered, and that’s all largely in the English-speaking world. The total number of known power plants around the globe is closer to 30,000.
The project will soon launch a website translated into Chinese, followed by Spanish and Portuguese, and it’s gearing up for international outreach. But if the crowd isn’t interested in helping out, Gurney and his team may have to get even more creative.
Ultimately, it’s all part of a larger project to build a finer-grained model of fossil fuel emissions. "Up until now really [the national level] was the scale at which things were done," says Gurney. "Now we’re doing them like weather maps."