Carbon emissions have long been the ‘public enemy number one’ of environmental campaigners and ecologists. Those noxious greenhouse gases are the single biggest source of pollution in the world today, and one of the major reasons for Global Warming, hence reducing the amount we pump into the atmosphere has been the stated goal of dozens of governments and agencies around the world.
But there’s one big problem with trying to reduce carbon emissions – these gases are invisible, and if we can’t pinpoint where they’re coming from, how can we possibly cut them out?
That’s the question that scientists at the University of Arizona have attempted to answer, with the development of new software they claim is able accurately measure and pinpoint the source of greenhouse gas emissions, right down to individual streets and buildings.
Known as Hestia, after the Greek goddess of the hearth, architecture, and the right ordering of domesticity, the family and the state, scientists hope that the program will be able to aid international efforts to reduce carbon emissions by identifying the most effective places to cut them.
Hestia is the result of an enormous data-mining effort that tracks public databases, traffic simulations and energy consumption models, building-by-building. The high-resolution maps created by the program illustrate exactly where greenhouse gas emissions are coming from within an urban landscape, giving policymakers a golden opportunity to work out how to reduce them.
Kevin Gurney, associate professor at ASU’s School of Life Sciences, explains:
“Cities have had little information with which to guide reductions in greenhouse gas emissions — and you can’t reduce what you can’t measure. With Hestia, we can provide cities with a complete, three-dimensional picture of where, when and how carbon dioxide emissions are occurring.”
Gurney’s team gathered the data from a variety of public sources, including traffic counts, air quality reports, and energy usage reports. The researchers then crunched all of this data, combining it with an ingenious modeling system that allows them to quantify greenhouse gas emissions in remarkable detail – down to individual buildings and public highways, helping them to identify the chief sources of pollution in any city Hestia is applied to.
To date, Hestia has been modeled pollutants in three US cities – Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Phoenix – but the researchers’ ultimate hope is to map carbon emissions in every single major city in the country, bearing in mind that the US is said to be responsible for one quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions in the world.
Gurney says that thanks to Hestia’s unprecedented accuracy and detail, policymakers can use it to target the most efficient places in their cities to invest in carbon reduction and clean energy programs. What’s more, Hestia will also be able to verify the effect of any programs they initiate, something that has proven to be a hugely contentious issue during international negotiations on a global climate treaty.
“These results may also help overcome current barriers to the United States joining an international climate change treaty. Many countries are unwilling to sign a treaty when greenhouse gas emission reductions cannot be independently verified,” explains Gurney.
“Scientists have spent decades describing the seriousness of climate change. Now, we are offering practical information to help do something about it.”