Quantifying greenhouse-gas emissions from atmospheric measurements: a critical reality check for climate legislation

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, Volume 369, Issue 1943, p.1925 - 1942 (2011)


1364-503X, 1471-2962




Emissions reduction legislation relies upon ‘bottom-up’ accounting of industrial and biogenic greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions at their sources. Yet, even for relatively well-constrained industrial GHGs, global emissions based on ‘top-down’ methods that use atmospheric measurements often agree poorly with the reported bottom-up emissions. For emissions reduction legislation to be effective, it is essential that these discrepancies be resolved. Because emissions are regulated nationally or regionally, not globally, top-down estimates must also be determined at these scales. High-frequency atmospheric GHG measurements at well-chosen station locations record ‘pollution events’ above the background values that result from regional emissions. By combining such measurements with inverse methods and atmospheric transport and chemistry models, it is possible to map and quantify regional emissions. Even with the sparse current network of measurement stations and current inverse-modelling techniques, it is possible to rival the accuracies of regional ‘bottom-up’ emission estimates for some GHGs. But meeting the verification goals of emissions reduction legislation will require major increases in the density and types of atmospheric observations, as well as expanded inverse-modelling capabilities. The cost of this effort would be minor when compared with current investments in carbon-equivalent trading, and would reduce the volatility of that market and increase investment in emissions reduction.