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Measuring Greenhouse Gases with Stable Isotopes


The IAEA and the World Meteorological Organization use stable isotopes to find out where greenhouse gases come from in order to fight climate change.

The IAEA and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) announced today their first-ever joint technical cooperation project aimed at supporting experts worldwide in using stable isotopes to measure the release of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and accurately determine their source. The Greenhouse Gas Foot-Printing project, launched at a side event on margins of the IAEA’s 65th General Conference, will build on the two organizations’ growing collaboration since 1997.

Greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, are driving global climate change and cause extreme climate events around the world. These gases come from both human activities like burning fossil fuels for energy and natural processes such as plant decomposition. Calculating the exact source of GHGs in a specific area is a challenge for countries seeking to meet commitments to limit global warming. Nuclear science can help.

“Understanding where emissions come from, what their origin is, allows decision makers to target the right polluters,” said Katherina Deufrains, the IAEA Programme Management Officer in charge of the project.

Globally, there are only a few institutions which are sufficiently qualified to measure isotopes to track and trace GHG emissions to a point where they can determine the exact source. “Our goal is to expand this capacity to enable more countries to benefit from accurate information to make the necessary changes needed to reduce emissions,” said Oksana Tarasova, Head of the Atmospheric Environment Research Division of the WMO.

But what do stable isotopes have to do with understanding the source of GHGs?

At the event, Federica Camin, an IAEA Reference Materials Specialist, explained how analysing isotopic ratios in GHGs is used: “By collecting air samples and defining the ratio of carbon isotopes in the sample’s carbon dioxide content, scientists can detect how the gas has been released and determine its origins. This knowledge can be used to help create more effective climate policy and action.”

By understanding the release of emissions on a national scale, policymakers can more effectively target their efforts in reducing emissions. The WMO has explained the importance of measuring national emissions in this video:

Being a custodian for the primary standards of isotopic materials, the IAEA will work with the WMO and its Integrated Global Greenhouse Gas Information System (IG3IS) to enable scientists to answer the necessary questions to understand and reduce emissions:

  1. What is the current status of emissions in the city and/or country?
  2. Where are the emissions coming from?
  3. How much of the emissions can be cut?
  4. How much of an impact does following national regulations make on reducing emissions?

At the event, Deufrains, announced, that a guide on good practices explaining step-by-step how to carry out the analysis will be published and is currently being developed with support from international experts.

In parallel, regional training and service centres will be established in laboratories that are already participating in the WMO’s Global Atmosphere Watch (GAW) but do not yet use stable isotopes for measuring GHG emissions, Deufrains said. At these centres, scientists will be trained in using instruments, interpreting data and analysing results in reference to emission sources. The trained scientists will be able to inform decision makers and help authorities target their climate policies, dispel local myths about the reality of emissions, and build support for focused climate action.

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