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Hestia Is Like Google Streetview for Greenhouse Gases

There's a lot of reasons humanity is having such a hard time cutting back on greenhouse gases. It's not just fake scientists and deniers, and/or the dollars of heavy industry. There is also the actually real issue of vagueness. A study out this week in...
October 9, 2012, 7:20pm

There’s a lot of reasons humanity is having such a hard time cutting back on greenhouse gases. It’s not just fake scientists and deniers, and/or the dollars of heavy industry. There is also the actually real issue of vagueness. A study out this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests (via game theory) that the lack of a definite threshold in greenhouse gas concentrations where we can say with certainty that very bad things will happen at this precise point is a barrier to international cooperation on cutbacks.

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Another barrier may be that, perhaps, we view greenhouse gas emissions as more of a collective thing than it really is, an amorphous cloud coming from everywhere. But what if we could pinpoint in an urban area where gases are coming from in the same way that you might be able to, say, map crime rates down to individual addresses? This is mission of Hestia, a new software system from researchers at Arizona State University that maps the greenhouse gas emissions of urban areas in super-high-resolution. It is naming names, in other words, at least in the first completed city, Indianapolis (with Los Angeles and Phoenix following). Whereas, historically, we’ve mainly only been able to name cities or census tracts at the macro level.

A just-out paper in Environmental Science and Technology from the Hestia team explains: “[the project] is the first to use bottom-up methods to quantify all fossil fuel CO2 emissions down to the scale of individual buildings, road segments, and industrial/electricity production facilities on an hourly basis for an entire urban landscape.” Hestia’s sources: “extensive public database "data-mining" with traffic simulation and building-by-building energy-consumption modeling.” The video below explains the project.

Kevin Gurney, the project’s main guy, boasts in a press release: “These results may also help overcome current barriers to the United States joining an international climate change treaty. Many countries are unwilling to sign a treaty when greenhouse gas emission reductions cannot be independently verified.” That said, the project has been working on its Indianapolis case study since 2007. A full-scale carbon-emissions streetview of the United States seems a long ways away.

Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.