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Conversations with the Coalition: Ted Nace - Climate TRACE

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Conversations with the Coalition: Ted Nace

Apr 02, 2024

By Climate TRACE


As part of an ongoing Climate TRACE series, we are interviewing individual coalition members about their work. We recently talked with Ted Nace, Executive Director of Global Energy Monitor (GEM), a nonprofit that develops and analyzes data on energy infrastructure, resources, and uses, providing open access to information to build a sustainable energy future.

Which emissions sector(s) are you focused on for the coalition? 

We provide Climate TRACE with data on coal mines, power plants (including coal-fired, gas-fired, oil-fired, internal combustion, and bioenergy), Chinese teapot refineries (independently owned refineries that account for a lot of the Chinese refining capacity), and other sectors. We often do this in collaboration with or as a complement to other coalition members. For Climate TRACE, we also focus on asset ownership. That's less about the emissions; instead, we’re documenting who owns the emitting assets.

What is your approach to estimating these emissions and determining who owns various emitting assets?

We research each facility one by one, building datasets where we create a footnoted fact sheet on each facility. To provide transparency and “show our work,” we link to those fact sheets from our GEM Wiki platform. Anybody who wants to “kick the tires” can see these footnoted fact sheets.

What kinds of inputs do you use to create these datasets?

The most important input is government datasets, but they're different in every country. So part of that is just bringing it all in and aligning it. Second most important is corporate data, like corporate websites, corporate submittals, permits, and annual reports. We also leverage news reports, social media, and satellite imagery. You can see things literally happening from a satellite, like a plant that is already under construction but which hasn't applied for a permit yet and thus isn’t showing up in other traditional information sources.

Certain sectors and facility types can be very hard to research because we're looking for a lot of detail that might not be public — or at least, not easily discoverable. The asset owner or operator might consider it proprietary information, so they don't publish it anywhere obvious (or at all). Yet I'm amazed at how much detail our team has actually been able to find.

Moreover, other forms of infrastructure such as pipelines can also be really difficult, because they might have been built a long time ago — before the Internet and the era of information digitization — and/or they're underground, so you can't see them by a satellite, and the company isn't reporting them in a coherent way. So you've got to document the route. And a lot of times, these are huge emitters because they're old and leaking. 

What other key challenges have you faced along the way, and how are you solving for them?

One of the challenges is the diversity of languages in the information and data sources we’re scouring. We have about a dozen Chinese language researchers now, as well as some for Arabic, Russian, Spanish, and Portuguese. We also work with local NGOs in places like Turkey, Korea, and Japan, who have a very good handle on what's going on in their particular country. 

Another challenge has to do with poor reporting. It depends on the country, but in some countries, for example Indonesia, the regulators provide very little information on key sectors since a lot of the industry activity is “off the books.” But in Indonesia, we're looking at things that are really large, including some of the biggest open-pit coal mines in the world. It's hard to hide the facts on these giant things that are happening in plain sight. 

Finally, there are countries that actively conceal their energy information (such as OPEC nations), where — for strategic reasons — they don't want to allow public knowledge of what oil is in the ground or how much they're pumping out.

Where are you in the process of capturing these data? 

We're doing the best with coal, where we cover about 98% of the full capacity of the coal-fired power sector. For gas and oil power plants, we estimated 88% of operating capacity; for bioenergy, 45–57%; for coal mining, 93–95%; for steel, about 92%; and for iron, 90–95%. The datasets take a lot of time to create, but once you've created them, they're useful for so many things. 

How do other organizations use GEM data to support target setting and emissions reductions?

Separate from our data’s integration into the broader Climate TRACE dataset, more than 3,700 organizations download this data directly from GEM and use it for many purposes. Our biggest downloads come from Chinese universities; another major user is the World Bank. 

Our datasets get used a lot in the academic world for energy transition studies, in the NGO world for energy transition work, modeling health impacts of air pollution, and setting goals for campaigns, say to get rid of coal plants. [Editor’s note: For example, the Bloomberg Global Coal Countdown leverages GEM data, among others.]

Businesses also use our data to mark their progress toward net zero goals, particularly in the financial sector. For example, they’ll look at what percentage of investments are green versus fossil-fueled. And it gets used for a certain kind of campaigning around divestments. 

Of course, climate modeling needs a lot of these kinds of databases, too. Modelers want information to answer questions like, “Okay, if the coal plants that exist now are retired as they get to the age of 50, will we get to net zero by 2050?” A lot of energy transition scenarios have to do with understanding, say, coal fleets in more detail, like how old are they? And where are they? Our work can be described as headlights because we don't just look at what's there. We also spend at least as much of our time on what is being proposed for future building, and what stage in the process is that at. 

When we first started looking at this information [at the end of 2007], I wondered, “Do we really need to create this information? It must be at the IEA or something.” The answer was no, across the board. There was this huge gap. Once we were doing it, organizations like the IEA came to us and said, “Hey, can we use your database?” 

Suddenly we realized, this is going to be a big part of the energy transition. Everybody's going to want data on every sector. And it's true. It's funny to be deep in the data, but also have the feeling that you're watching something really huge happening. 

Interviewed by Daisy Simmons.


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