GHGSat’s satellite undergoes testing in a thermal vacuum chamber at the University of Toronto’s Space Flight Laboratory, where it is exposed to extremes of hot and cold.

GHGSat’s satellite undergoes testing in a thermal vacuum chamber at the University of Toronto’s Space Flight Laboratory, where it is exposed to extremes of hot and cold. Photo credit: Cordell Grant, Space Flight Laboratory

After decades of deliberation and debate, humanity’s efforts to confront climate change remain tangled with a familiar business maxim: you can’t manage what you can’t measure. Although rising levels of greenhouse gases (GHGs) within the Earth’s atmosphere have been repeatedly linked to changing weather patterns around the world, sorting out the specific contribution of those gases is a daunting task. In fact, we have no efficient, standardized means of determining just how much of this material is being emitted from any given place on earth.

When Montreal-based entrepreneur Stephane Germain realized this glaring lack of capability is hampering all high-profile efforts to rein in civilization’s output of GHGs, he sensed a profound business opportunity. “The real epiphany for me was when the Quebec government announced a cap-and-trade scheme in the summer of 2011,” Germain recalls. “It dawned on me that where there is an economic value assigned to a tonne of carbon, then surely there’s a desire and need by the industrial emitters to have the best data possible on those emissions so that they can better manage them.”

Germain was already familiar with the platform technology, a space-based short-wave infrared spectrometer to measure methane and CO2 at high resolution. The Canadian Space Agency had recently invested in the development of just such an instrument by MPB Communications in Pointe-Claire, in Montreal’s West End. Germain subsequently founded his own company, GHGSat, to get this technology satellite-ready. By the spring of 2013, armed with $2 million from Sustainable Development Technology Canada, the company had teamed up with subcontractors to create a tiny satellite for a big job: telling corporate clients the volume of GHGs they are emitting. 

Last December the satellite, which weighs about 15 kilograms and is not much larger than a microwave oven, had completed its final round of testing at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies Space Flight Laboratory. From there it should make its way into orbit this spring from Sriharikota, the Bay of Bengal island launch pad operated by the Indian Space Research Organization.

While Japan, Europe and the United States each operate their own satellites dedicated to measuring GHGs, the resulting data is broadly based, attempting to take stock of the entire atmosphere. GHGSat has adopted the opposite approach of measuring a confined column underneath it. According to James Sloan, an emeritus Earth & Environmental Sciences professor at the University of Waterloo who serves as the scientific consultant, the satellite will offer a spatial resolution of less than 50 metres on any given area of ground about 15 kilometres in diameter. It should therefore be ideal for assessing the GHG footprint of an industrial facility, the first such application of this technique.

Germain has a waiting clientele that is eager to see GHGSat get to work, including several members of Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), which has a GHG emissions steering committee. While critics often single out this industrial sector as one of the world’s leading sources of GHGs, he notes that there is still a need for hard data to back up those claims. Germain argues that COSIA is demonstrating a willingness to seek out more accurate measurements that will address this challenge more clearly. “A lot of companies want to get ahead of this issue,” he says. “They know there are uncertainties in their existing measurements methods. They would like to be able to have better data so they could better understand it, manage it, control it and reduce it. But they just don’t have the tools right now.”