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This is a joint posting with Robin Kraft

Nearly two years after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to determine whether greenhouse gases (GHGs) pose a threat to peoples’ health or welfare – the first step toward regulation -- the EPA this week issued a draft rule on a national GHG registry:

In general, EPA proposes that suppliers of fossil fuels or industrial greenhouse gases, manufacturers of vehicles and engines, and facilities that emit 25,000 metric tons or more per year of GHG emissions submit annual reports to EPA.

This is an important step forward: you can't manage what you don't measure. But merely collecting the data won't be enough. Similar reporting requirements have applied to U.S. power plants since 1996 and, in theory at least, the information has been publicly available. But actually using that data is anything but straightforward. The U.S. government is not alone in failing to make this data easily accessible: in Europe, a cottage industry has sprung up to make sense of data from the EU's Emissions Trading System.

Two years ago, CGD launched Carbon Monitoring for Action (CARMA.org) to address the urgent need for globally consistent, reliable data on emissions, starting with the power sector, which accounts for about a quarter of all emissions worldwide. CARMA provides information on the reported or estimated emissions of some 50,000 power plants around the world, plus plant ownership and aggregated firm-level emissions through Google Maps, Google Earth, an application programming interface (API), and spreadsheets. CARMA uses government-collected plant-level emissions data whenever we can find it, including in the United States, EU and India. Not surprisingly, the numbers get a lot more attention and use on CARMA than when they are buried in a hard-to-find and hard-to-use government spread sheets.

Ultimately, for the world to get a grip on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, verified up-to-date information on where the emissions come from will be crucial, not only for the power sector but also for industrial processes (cement plants are a major source), land use change (both deforestation and agriculture), livestock, transportation and commercial and residential buildings. This global monitoring effort will be larger than anything we at CGD expect to be able to provide. It is urgently needed and should be among the commitments that nations make at the international climate conference in Copenhagen in December. A plan by Cisco and NASA to design a monitoring system called "Planetary Skin" is a welcome development and we look forward to hearing more about it.

Until such a system is up and running, the additional data that will come from the EPA and other government reporting efforts will be a boon to CARMA and other non-governmental public information disclosure exercises. And we hope that CARMA will be a useful example of the importance and power of making the data readily accessible in a form that people can use.

Here's an example of the power of CARMA to yield valuable information. The proposed EPA rule will apply to U.S. facilities that produce more than 25,000 tons per year of the six leading greenhouse gases, an estimated 13,000 facilities that account for 85-90 percent of total U.S. emissions. A few clicks on CARMA revealed that there are 9,473 power plants in the United States, but only 1,743 of these have emissions of more than 25,000 tons. The good news? These 1,743 plants account for more than 99 percent of U.S. power plant emissions.

Disclaimer

CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.