Sentinel tracks ships’ dirty emissions from orbit

The new EU satellite tasked with tracking dirty air has demonstrated how it will become a powerful tool to monitor emissions from shipping.

Sentinel-5P was launched in October last year and this week completed its in-orbit commissioning phase.

But already it is clear the satellite’s data will be transformative.

This latest image reveals the trail of nitrogen dioxide left in the air as ships move in and out of the Mediterranean Sea.

The “highway” that the vessels use to navigate the Strait of Gibraltar is easily discerned by S5P’s Tropomi instrument.

“You really see a straight line because all these ships follow approximately the same route,” explained Pepijn Veefkind, Tropomi’s principal investigator from the Dutch met office (KNMI).

“In this case, we also looked into how many big ships there are in the region [at the time], and there’s really not that many – around 20 or so, we estimate – but each one is putting out a lot of NO₂.”

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    Nitrogen dioxide is a product of the combustion of fuels, in this instance from the burning of marine diesel. But it is also possible to see in the picture the emissions hanging over major urban areas on land that come from cars, trucks and a number of industrial activities. NO₂ will be a major contributor to the poorer air quality people living in those areas experience.

    Sentinel-5P is the next big step because of its greater sensitivity and sharper view of the atmosphere.

    “Shipping lanes are something we’ve seen on previous missions but only after we’ve averaged a lot of data; so, over a month or a year. But with Tropomi we see these shipping lanes with a single image,” Dr Veefkind told BBC News.

    “The resolution we got from our previous instruments was about 20km by 20km. Now, we’ve gone down to 7km by 3.5km, and we are thinking of going to even smaller pixels.”

    Eyes in the sky

    Analysis by David Shukman, BBC Science Editor

    Far beyond the horizon, steaming through the remote High Seas, the great fleets of global shipping have for years been too distant to be observed.

    Only in port can anyone catch sight of the plumes of dark smoke rising from the vessels’ engines. But added together, the greenhouse gases from the world’s 50,000 ships make this industry the world’s sixth largest emitter, and most of it is unseen. This has long fuelled suspicions among environmental campaigners.

    Exempt from the Kyoto Protocol and then the Paris Agreement, shipping acquired a reputation as a sector that dodged its responsibilities on climate change. That’s why the landmark deal earlier this month for a cut in emissions of 50% by 2050 received so much attention. But it also raised a host of questions about policing: who would keep watch, and how?

    Europe’s Sentinel programme is part of the answer. Suddenly, at just the right time, the world’s shipping lanes are in full view.

    S5P’s availability is timely. The shipping sector has just signalled its intention to make big reductions in its emissions over the next 30 years, in particular of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

    At the moment, those emissions are calculated in a “bottom-up” fashion.

    By knowing the size of the global fleet, where it moves, the ships’ specifications and how much fuel they are likely consuming – it is possible to estimate how much CO₂, or indeed NO₂, is being pumped into the atmosphere from exhausts.

    But this all involves quite a few assumptions, and so the models need to be audited by some top-down analysis as well – which is where satellites come in.

    S5P-Tropomi does not see CO₂, although its NO₂ observations can act as a tracer in the sense that wherever nitrogen dioxide turns up on shipping lanes, there will be CO₂ present, too.

    But the best solution would be a dedicated carbon-monitoring satellite.

    This is why the EU has asked its technical agent on space matters, the European Space Agency, to design a Sentinel specific to the task.

    Dubbed Sentinel 7 by many people, because that is the next available number in the series, this future mission should fly in the 2020s.

    The aim is to be able track CO₂ down through the atmosphere on a scale of around 3km by 3km, but over a wide area. That would make Sentinel 7 a forceful partner for Sentinel 5.

    Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

UK/EU trade deal? Boy, it’s going to be a complicated year

When considering any difficult conundrum, it is often worth stating the obvious first.

Both sides in the negotiations between Britain and the European Union say they want a deal on trade once Brexit has happened.

Both have said they want that deal to be comprehensive – “deep and special” according to the UK.

Both have signalled they are willing to give ground to achieve their desired outcome.

Britain – for example – has moved on the issue of financial services’ access to the European Union once we have departed.

No “passporting rights” as Theresa May admitted in her Mansion House speech in London earlier this month.

Benefits

Just one of the “costs” of Brexit the Government is now admitting are attached to the decision to depart.

Alongside the “benefits” on sovereignty and the freedom to sign free trade deals with non-EU countries.

The EU – for example – has agreed that Britain will be able to negotiate and sign (if not implement) free trade deals with non-EU countries whilst still effectively a member of the single market during the implementation period.

And despite many protestations that there would be no such thing as a “bespoke” free trade deal for the UK, Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, has made it clear that a different type of deal is exactly what is on offer.

As David Cameron’s former advisor, Mats Persson, now of EY, points out, the offer of no tariffs and no quotas on goods trade between Britain and the EU already puts the deal in a better position than the EU’s agreements with Canada, Norway and Switzerland.

The two sides do differ on sticking points and red lines.

‘Equivalence’

Such as how on earth do you solve the Irish border issue without resorting to “technological solutions” that even the most optimistic of trade negotiators admit don’t actually exist yet?

Or what does “equivalence” look like when it comes to regulating the insurance or banking industries for example?

And can that equivalence be too easily withdrawn by either side, leaving a great deal of regulatory risk on the post-Brexit table?

But, here are two sides in a difficult negotiation whose expressed will is to get a deal.

And, when it comes to negotiations, that is not a bad starting point.

Lower growth?

That is not to say for a moment that whatever Britain’s deal with the EU, there are not likely to be costs.

Nearly all the economic modelling done on any future free trade arrangements – including by the government – have said comparative economic growth is likely to be lower for the UK.

And growth since the referendum has softened as Brexit uncertainty has weighed on business confidence and the inflation spike linked to the fall in the value of sterling has re-introduced the incomes squeeze.

That’s when prices go up more quickly than peoples’ wages.

That effect is only now starting to unwind as the pound strengthens once again.

The timetable is tight for the “political agreement” planned for later this year on a future trade deal.

The government insists it is doable as there is already a great deal of regulatory trust between the two sides, bound as they have been for more than 40 years in a trading union.

And sources indicate that Britain will show the correct degree of humility in asking the “club” to rewrite the rules of an organisation we have just quit.

Heroic assumptions, critics will say.

No deal has been done and Parliament has not voted on leaving the customs union or the single market.

“A shambles” according to the Labour MP, Ben Bradshaw, will remain just that until the government either falls or a different deal is put in place.

For the two protagonists, though, at least in this negotiation both sides want an outcome whose similarities possibly outweigh the contradictions.

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Spy poisoning: Russian diplomats expelled across US and Europe

The United States and its European allies are expelling dozens of Russian diplomats in a co-ordinated response to the poisoning of a former Russian spy in the UK.

US President Donald Trump has ordered 60 Russian diplomats to leave the country.

Germany, France, Ukraine, Canada and various European countries have also expelled envoys.

Russia called the moves a “provocative gesture” and vowed to retaliate.

Russia denies any role in the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury, southern England. The pair remain in a critical but stable condition in hospital.

The US action is also the biggest move against Russia since the Cold War era and the hostilities with the then Soviet Union.

The Russian foreign ministry said the moves demonstrated a continuation of a “confrontational path”.

“It goes without saying that this unfriendly act by this group of countries will not go without notice and we will react to it,” its statement said.

Who is expelling diplomats?

The UK announced it was expelling 23 Russian diplomats earlier this month.

Various countries announced they were making the same move in solidarity on Monday. These are:

  • US: 60 diplomats
  • EU countries: France (4); Germany (4); Poland (4); Czech Republic (3); Lithuania (3); Denmark (2); Netherlands (2); Italy (2); Estonia (1); Croatia (1); Finland (1); Latvia (1); Romania (1)
  • Ukraine: 13
  • Canada: 4

    Why are they doing it?

    President of the European Council Donald Tusk said 14 EU states had decided to expel Russian diplomats as a direct result of a meeting, held last week, about the Salisbury poisoning.

    “Additional measures, including further expulsions within this common EU framework are not to be excluded in the coming days and weeks,” he said.

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      The US state department said in a statement: “On March 4, Russia used a military-grade nerve agent to attempt to murder a British citizen and his daughter in Salisbury.

      “This attack on our Ally the United Kingdom put countless innocent lives at risk and resulted in serious injury to three people, including a police officer.”

      It called the attack an “outrageous violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and breach of international law”.

      The US is expelling 48 envoys at the Russian embassy in Washington and 12 more at the UN in New York. It will also order the closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle.

      Remarkable show of solidarity

      By Jonathan Marcus, BBC diplomatic correspondent

      This is building into the most serious diplomatic crisis between Russia and the West since Moscow’s seizure of Crimea.

      Whatever the denials, Britain’s allies have clearly accepted its view that the use of a military grade nerve agent in Salisbury was “highly likely” the work of the Russian state.

      The collective expulsions from the US and 14 EU member states is a remarkable show of solidarity with Britain, even more so because it comes at a time when UK-EU relations are strained due to the Brexit negotiations.

      Donald Tusk’s note that there could be “additional measures” is a signal to Moscow as it considers how it will respond.

      It is a significant diplomatic victory for Prime Minister Theresa May – concerted action has now followed the strong rhetorical support from its allies. It also marks a significant toughening of the Trump administration’s stance towards Moscow.