Measuring the Hot Air in Davos

Davos from above. Photograph by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images Close

Davos from above. Photograph by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

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Davos from above. Photograph by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

Carbon consciousness is plentiful at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where the world's filthy rich went this week to try to hash out some of the world’s most intractable problems. Less plentiful than expected: carbon pollution.

Picarro, a California-based maker of machines to measure greenhouse gases, set out to show just how much pollution the annual meeting of high-minded financiers releases into the air. The results? Negative. Davos emissions have dipped up to 50 percent since the start of the conference.

Picarro’s blog noted Wednesday that "locals leave during the WEF," and car traffic is light. Warmer weather this week pushed temperatures higher than they’d been before the conference. That pushed energy use, and its emissions, lower. It may be that the event itself generates more hot air than heat-trapping gas.

Picarro’s experiment was successful in its primary aim: to show that standard methods for counting carbon -- estimates based on fuel use and population -- vastly underestimates actual emissions, whether residents are home or not.

This underestimation underscores the broader problem that Picarro CEO Michael Woelk is pitching to municipalities: While cities have political will to reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases, they have no way to accurately measure them.

More than half of the world's people live in cities. They cover 2 percent of the planet's land but are responsible for as much as 80 percent of manmade emissions, according to the United Nations. The atmosphere above a city is its greenhouse-gas garbage disposal, mixing heat-trapping gas, soot and other pollution into the atmosphere. From there, it joins the global commons.

Picarro’s CityCarbon project is addressing a local, not global need. Global CO2 levels are understood with great precision. In the late 1950s, a Scripps Institution scientist named Charles David Keeling initiated continuous carbon dioxide monitoring, at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. As early as 1960 he reported an uptick in global CO2 levels. Woelk shares an anecdote about Keeling, who told him that the inability to measure pollution adequately “is kind of like going on a diet, and never forcing yourself to get on the scale.”

Davos is the first city to step on Picarro’s scale.

The company’s instruments are precise enough to sniff out greenhouse gases that make up billionths of a volume of air. The 45-pound sensors may look like cable boxes, but inside they're more like cutting-edge $70,000 atmospheric chemistry sets. The company dispatched two of them to the Swiss mountain resort, where about 2,700 power brokers have converged for global capitalism’s annual winter retreat.

Air comes and goes with the weather. To understand how, Picarro teamed up with the aerospace technology company Sigma Space, maker of remote sensors that can detect how high the “dome” of gases rises above a city. Ultimately, the motivation for measurement has as much to do with good economics as good science, says Phil DeCola, chief science officer of Sigma Space. Emissions data will need to be reliable to have a healthy carbon market. “If the nations of the world are going to get serious about limiting climate change, we need to put the right price on the carbon going into the air,” he says.

The World Economic Forum made Picarro one of its 25 Technology Pioneers of 2012, a sign of its broad interest in keeping the event’s impacts low. Picarro is publishing its Davos data at citycarbon.picarro.com.  The Forum has a team that annually reviews its environmental impact, says Olivier Schwab, executive director for the World Economic Forum in China. Guidance for next year may also come from the Global Reporting Initiative, a nonprofit that develops greenhouse gas accounting protocols. This week the GRI released guidance for major event organizers who want to manage carbon better.

Next stop for Picarro: Indianapolis. A pilot program there will identify the number of sensors a major city needs to deploy for consistent measurements -- possibly a half dozen, according to Woelk. He meditates on the possibilities for urban sensing, as Davos participants dissect the year’s financial shenanigans: “You can cheat your income statement. You can cheat your cash flow. I think it’s pretty hard to cheat the air.”

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