December 6, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

In the last fortnight: the OCO-2 satellite launch, a badger reprieve and energy subsidy stats ...

Themes of the last fortnight have been the OCO-2 satellite launch, a badger reprieve and energy subsidy stats.

Satellite to chart the atmosphere

Finally, the OCO-2 satellite is successfully in orbit. It will measure gas concentrations in the atmosphere with unprecedented accuracy and, according to, will help us understand why around half of the excess CO2 emitted is reabsorbed by oceans and forests.

The first incarnation of the satellite blew up on launch in 2009 but its identical twin made it into orbit last week. Current satellites can measure gas concentrations in areas of 85 square kilometres, but OCO-2 will refine that resolution to just 3 square kilometres. Lauren Morello writing in Nature points out that this will enable the measurement of carbon dioxide emission at the level of urban pockets or even large power plants. Conversely, the satellite could also measure carbon dioxide uptake by sections of forest or farmland. Overall it will improve our knowledge of the ebb and flow of atmospheric gases to and from the Earth’s surface.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion laboratory explains how ‘top-down’ data from the satellite, combined with ‘bottom-up’ data on fossil fuel burning will help with the carbon budget and with regulating carbon emissions.

So there’s a lot expected of this little satellite and the A-train of satellites that follows it. The more we know about our atmosphere and how activities on the Earth’s surface affect it, the more chance we have of averting potentially dangerous changes to it.

Man-made bovine TB spreading

A new report suggests killing badgers might not be the right policy for stopping the spread of bovine TB. It transpires that badgers aren’t the major factor in the onward march of the disease across the UK, instead the major cause is the movement of cattle herds between farms without proper TB testing beforehand. So the the real reason, according to research published by Nature, is that infected cattle herds are being moved from farm to farm.

The Telegraph highlights this conclusion of the research, which is that 84 per cent of outbreaks are caused by the movement of infected cattle. You have to feel sorry for all the badgers that have been hunted so far, but more sorry for the cattle – the paper suggests an effective measure would be to slaughter 250,000 cows. The BBC draws attention to the paper’s other suggested strategies to stop the infection spreading that include vaccination and having a one-off TB test for all the cattle in the UK at the same time.

The results came via a new computer model from the universities of Warwick and Cambridge and simulations from the model suggest a successful badger cull is only likely to slow the spread by 6-10% per year. Energy and Environment Management quotes Dominic Dyer, CEO of the Badger Trust, saying: “This groundbreaking report should be the final nail in the coffin of the disastrous badger cull policy.” If the results from the model are right, it’s the humans at fault rather than the poor badgers.

Stats for energy subsidies

More numbers for you on keeping energy available to power our transport, industry and home life. Research from the Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Austria shows that $1.2 trillion a year needs to be invested in renewable energy to have a good chance of avoiding a 2°C rise in global temperatures (the globally agreed maximum). At the moment the investment is a meagre $200 billion.

How to make up the shortfall? The paper points out it could could be transferred from government subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, which come in various forms including tax breaks, and amounts to $500 billion a year globally. If this amount was invested in renewables, the industry would surely attract the remaining $500 billion from private investment and therefore reach the required $1.2 trillion.

Sheril Kirshenbaum in Scientific American blogs figures from a recent energy poll of the American public that has been taken in the run up to the Midterm elections and that suggest there is support for investing in renewables: 74% of respondents who said they would vote Democrat would also support expanding financial incentives to companies engaged in renewable energy technologies. The equivalent figure for Republican voters was 57%. Taken together, these stats suggest a need to act, a way to act and public support for the action. The only question remaining is where’s the political blockage that is currently preventing governments from switching subsidies from fossil fuels to renewables?