Determining whether individual nations comply with future climate pacts will require a new satellite to keep tabs on countries that resist other forms of monitoring, a government advisory panel says.

The elite, independent panel of scientists -- known as JASON -- examined the United States' ability to monitor the progress of international agreements to reduce carbon dioxide emissions produced by burning fossil fuels.

Although JASON's work is often classified, the new report is not. Sponsored by the National Nuclear Security Administration, the study was released this week by the Federation of American Scientists' Secrecy News blog.

Current U.N. rules require countries to submit national emissions inventories, but the data are self-reported, not required annually from all countries, and there is not always independent information to verify it. The issue of verifying an individual country's emissions is a sensitive one -- a bone of contention for the United States and China at recent U.N. climate talks in Cancun, Mexico, although negotiators eventually agreed to develop a global monitoring system.

The JASON report explores the feasibility of using ground monitoring stations, aircraft and satellites to measure CO2, as well as methods to estimate emissions by monitoring a country's energy infrastructure. The group describes a complicated technical problem that can be made simpler by good diplomatic relations.

"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 study concludes.

A new Japanese satellite may help

The JASON report evaluates such methods against a goal of measuring a country or region's CO2 output with a margin of error of plus or minus 20 percent.

But for countries that aren't amenable to such monitoring, the United States' options are limited. The JASON report says there is "no demonstrated capability to estimate country-level emissions using direct measurements of atmospheric CO2" with enough accuracy to support monitoring a country's compliance with an international climate agreement.

More work is needed to improve the accuracy of estimates derived from inventories of a particular country's energy infrastructure, the report says, recommending that initial efforts focus on large emitters. That list includes the China, the United States, Russia, Japan, India and the European Union.

The outlook for monitoring "non-cooperative" countries is likely to improve over the next three to five years, the report says, with the anticipated availability of new data from a Japanese carbon monitoring satellite called GOSAT and an instrument aboard NASA's Aqua satellite, as well as the planned launch of another NASA satellite, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2.

That's in line with a report released last year by the National Academy of Sciences, which concluded that independently verifying a nation's CO2 emissions would take at least five years and require expanding ground monitoring stations and launching the OCO-2 to replace NASA's original Orbiting Carbon Observatory, which crashed during launch in 2009 (ClimateWire, March 22, 2010).

The JASON panel goes further, recommending the federal government develop a new carbon-tracking satellite to fly in geosynchronous orbit and issue a challenge to develop a sensor capable of measuring CO2 to 1-part-per-million accuracy at a cost of $500 or less.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500