Equilibrium & Sustainability

Al Gore: Emissions reductions hinge on AI measurements from space

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Achieving earthly emissions reductions goals will hinge upon the extraterrestrial capabilities of artificial intelligence technologies that are taking precision measurements from space, according to former Vice President Al Gore.   

“What’s so unique about the space resource is we can see and measure and identify things from space that are extremely difficult to measure at ground level,” Gore said on Tuesday. 

The former vice president, who backs an AI-powered platform called Climate TRACE, made the remarks during a virtual panel focused on space as a “next frontier” at the World Economic Forum’s annual Davos Agenda in Switzerland.  

Climate TRACE tracks real-time atmospheric carbon emissions from existing satellites through AI and machine learning to obtain “a highly accurate and precise quantification of every significant emitter of greenhouse gas pollution.” 

The project, which is a nonprofit international coalition, will unveil its first inventory later this year. Gore said the inventory will include “at least the 500 largest emitters in every single sector of the economy.” 

“The purpose is to get real-time or near-real-time measurement of where all this greenhouse gas pollution is coming from,” he said, noting that more than 100 countries do not have any such inventory and even most that do have only obsolete data. 

“All of the emissions data at present derives from one single source and that is the self-reports by some countries, the so-called Annex I Countries,” Gore added, referring to a United Nations categorization of developed countries. “They’re out of date, they’re inaccurate. We have already reported oil and gas operation emissions are at least double what they have reported.” 

While some types of emissions, like methane, can be directly seen by some of the newer satellites in space, Gore explained that measuring carbon dioxide levels — against a high carbon dioxide background on Earth — necessitates the use of artificial intelligence to achieve adequate precision. 

“You’ve heard the old cliche, ‘you can only manage what you measure,’” Gore said. “We haven’t had until now the measurements necessary to really manage greenhouse gas pollution.” 

That level of precision, according to Gore, will enable governments to optimize their national strategies for emissions reductions. 

“We’re not the climate cops,” he said. “We’re kind of neighborhood watch, except our neighborhood is the entire world.” 

Josef Aschbacher, director general of the European Space Agency, echoed Gore’s comments. 

“It is fair to say that without satellites, we wouldn’t know about climate change, at least to the extent as we as we know it today, because they feed the models, they feed the information we have,” Aschbacher said. “We avoid creating fake news because these facts are really giving the status as it is.” 

Artificial intelligence has also become a critical tool for astronauts in space, European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer told the panel from the International Space Station. 

When the space station flies farther away from Earth, he explained, he does not have his ground control team looking over his shoulder if he makes a small error. Instead, he relies on artificial intelligence, which he said has become “really important for exploration.” 

As scientists, policymakers and astronauts seek to make use of space as a technological resource, Sarah Al-Amiri, minister of state for advanced technology for the United Arab Emirates, stressed the importance of continued cooperation among nations. 

“When we’re talking now also on an international front, the dialogue needs to continue with regards to the sustainability of access to space, ensuring that nations around the world have the necessary access to have their assets in space,” Al-Amiri said. 

“If we keep space at the platform of only those that gets access to data are the countries that own a satellite in space, we deprive a large portion of the world from the ability to get the necessary knowledge,” she added. 

Looking back at his own experience establishing the International Space Station with Russian partners, Gore likewise stressed the importance of collaboration among countries. 

“With the tensions between the United States and Russia right now, in part because of the dangerous moves by Russia, vis-a-vis Ukraine, it’s useful to think back to a time when we were able to cooperate very smoothly together,” Gore said. 

Aschbacher emphasized the partnership between the public and private sector. 

“We should not never forget that the two richest people in the world are investing massively in space,” Aschbacher said. “This is really something that creates a completely new environment, new opportunities with a lot of economic goals and a lot of technology advancements, which we all need.” 

Gore, too, voiced support for the participation of the private sector, adding that “Elon Musk has revolutionized the ability to launch heavier payloads” into space. 

Aschbacher cautioned, however, that such advancements must occur alongside proper regulation, to ensure that the orbits of the increasing number of satellites remains “clean and sustainable.” 

Maurer, speaking from the International Space Station, said he finds value in having more “ambassadors” in space, who will be able to convey a message that “we need to take care of our planet.” 

“We also need to stop everything that I see here from space, that makes my heart bleed, like the burning rainforest or like the melting of the glaciers,” Maurer said. 

But Maurer, too, cautioned that as more rockets emerge from Earth into space, operators must be conscientious about the creation of space debris. 

Al-Amiri likewise spoke to the private sector’s involvement in space, noting that as the UAE continues to diversify its economy, the space industry remains a critical component of that mission. 

“The beauty of space is that it instigates and instills in society a deep understanding because of its aspirational nature — a deep understanding on the benefits of science, technology for society at large and also for the economy,” Al-Amiri said. 

The 2020 launch of the Emirates Mars Mission, she explained, created “a monumental shift in mindset, especially with regards to the appetite for risk.” 

“And this is what, societally, having a space program does,” Al-Amiri added. “It increases your appetite for risk.” 

Tags Al Gore Elon Musk

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