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NOAA’s observations help EPA track emissions of a family of greenhouse gases
Theo Stein
/ Categories: Research Headlines, Climate

NOAA’s observations help EPA track emissions of a family of greenhouse gases

For the first time, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is using NOAA atmospheric measurements to help support a national inventory of emissions from an important family of greenhouse gases.

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This graph depicts the rapid rise in the super-potent greenhouse gas hydrofluorocarbon-134, one of a family of gases developed developed to replace industrial chemicals responsible for destroying ozone in the stratosphere and creating the annual ozone hole over Antarctica. While less damaging to the ozone layer, man-made HFCs are super-potent greenhouse gases in their own right. Measurements are in parts per trillion. Credit: Global Monitoring Laboratory

The family of gases, called hydrofluorocarbons or HFCs, were developed to replace industrial chemicals responsible for destroying ozone in the stratosphere and creating the annual ozone hole over Antarctica. While less damaging to the ozone layer, man-made HFCs are super-potent greenhouse gases in their own right. As ozone-destroying predecessors like chlorofluorocarbons - also potent greenhouse gases - have been phased out, HFC emissions and their concentrations in the atmosphere have increased dramatically. Because of HFCs’ growing climate impact, the Kigali Amendment of the Montreal Protocol has established a schedule for the international phase-down of their future production and consumption. In the U.S., the American Innovation and Manufacturing Act of 2020 calls for an 85% reduction in HFC production and consumption by 2036.

Estimating emissions: Top down and bottom up

Greenhouse gas emissions estimates are generally calculated by one of two primary types of methods. “Bottom up” inventories are generally developed through an accounting of all activities that generate emissions, the application of measurement-based or model-based emissions factors to those activities, and use of facility-specific data, where available.This is the approach used by the EPA and basis for reporting national emissions and sinks annually to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.  

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The Global Monitoring Laboratory's new Emission Tracker provides emission magnitudes for certain potent greenhouse gases, such as replacements for ozone-destroying synthetic chemicals, derived from atmospheric measurements at sites across the U.S. This graph shows regional emissions trends for HFC-134 in parts per trillion. Credit: Global Monitoring Laboratory

 Greenhouse gas emissions can also be estimated by careful measurements of atmospheric samples collected downwind of a source region. This method is known as “atmosphere-based” or “top down,”and is a standard research approach used by NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory.

This year, EPA has included a comparison of NOAA’s atmospheric emission estimates of four HFCs to its own inventory-based estimates in the just-released U.S. Inventory of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks, based on results first reported in the 2017 Geophysical Research Letters study by a team that included scientists from NOAA, CIRES, EPA, and Lawrence Berkley National Laboratories.   

“The comparisons show reasonable consistencies between the two independently derived estimates, suggesting a robust understanding of HFC emissions,” said Lei Hu, CIRES scientist at the Global Monitoring Laboratory who leads a team supplying the atmosphere-based estimates. “Where we see differences, further analysis will be beneficial.” 

HFCs well-suited for comparing inventory-based and atmosphere-based estimates

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This gas chromatograph with mass spectrometry detection instrument, located at the Global Monitoring Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, is used to measure the concentrations of halocarbons such as HFCs in air samples captured at sites across the globe and the U.S. Credit: Global Monitoring Laboratory

Accurate estimates of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are important for understanding contributions to climate change, and for evaluating the effectiveness of emissions reduction activities. While “top down” and “bottom up” approaches each have limitations, they can complement each other and comparisons can help target measurement or data collection improvements. Improved understanding of GHG emissions helps provide policymakers guidance when developing and assessing emission reduction strategies. 

HFCs are some of the most suitable greenhouse gases for comparisons between the bottom-up inventory and atmosphere-based estimates because they are engineered chemicals with no natural sources, and they persist in the atmosphere, which reduces the complexity of estimating emissions.  

“Interagency collaboration strengthens our collective abilities to quantify HFC emissions in the U.S.,” said Ariel Stein, the director of the Global Monitoring Laboratory. “We look forward to more opportunities to work together in understanding emissive processes and guiding emission reductions.”

The HFC emission estimates have recently been incorporated into the Global Monitoring Laboratory's new Emission Tracker web page, which provides atmosphere-based estimates at national and regional levels for 2008-2014 for HFCs and several other synthetic gases. NOAA Global Monitoring Laboratory plans to continue to provide national- and global-scale observations of the atmosphere and build tools that guide informed decisions for a Climate Ready Nation.

For more information, contact Theo Stein, NOAA Communications, at theo.stein@noaa.gov. 

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