Expert Report

Each report is produced by a committee of experts selected by the Academy to address a particular statement of task and is subject to a rigorous, independent peer review; while the reports represent views of the committee, they also are endorsed by the Academy. Learn more on our expert consensus reports.

A climate treaty could be negotiated by the end of 2009, yet current methods for estimating greenhouse gas emissions have limitations for treaty monitoring and verification. This National Research Council letter report assesses whether NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO), which failed on launch in early 2009, could be of use in monitoring emissions. The report concludes that the observatory could have tested the engineering designs and measurement concepts required to develop a robust capability for monitoring emissions from space. It also could have monitored carbon dioxide emissions from large local sources, such as cities and power plants, providing the first few years of baseline data for a climate treaty.

Key Messages

  • Although OCO was not designed for treaty monitoring and verification, it would have provided baseline emission data from large fossil fuel sources as well as essential tests of the engineering designs and measurement concepts required to develop a robust capability for monitoring emissions from space.
  • Existing measurement methods alone are insufficient to independently verify reported emissions trends.
  • NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO), which failed on launch in February 2009, would have provided proof of concept for spaceborne technologies to monitor greenhouse gas emissions, as well as baseline emissions data.
  • The committee's study is focused on emission estimates of the greenhouse gases resulting from human activities (e.g., fossil fuel burning, deforestation, agriculture) that have the greatest potential to warm the planet and in particular on CO2.
  • This letter focuses on the capabilities of an OCO and currently deployed satellites that measure atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) and their potential role in monitoring and verifying a greenhouse gas treaty.