Methane Matters: A Complex but Critical Greenhouse Gas

Published on: Apr 20, 2023

This post is the first of Carbon Mapper’s Methane Remote Monitoring Education Series, which intends to demystify key concepts and topics about methane and what it takes to measure and monitor this important greenhouse gas. To recommend a future topic, contact us here.

Methane matters

As the urgency to address the climate crisis grows, governments and companies are increasingly taking notice of the risks and opportunities of methane. Like CO2, methane is a greenhouse gas that traps heat in Earth’s atmosphere and warms the planet. Methane has caused about 30% of global warming to date, but cutting emissions now would actually yield greater and more immediate climate advances. That’s because methane has more than 80 times the warming power of CO2 over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere.

Recently, governments have increasingly recognized the potential methane holds in avoiding the worst impacts of climate change and have made commitments to reduce it in a variety of ways. However, despite this momentum, we are still moving in the wrong direction. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, atmospheric concentrations of methane have been on the rise and experienced a record jump in 2021. It’s time to translate goals and commitments into action.

methaneMethane comes from a variety of sources

Methane is released into the atmosphere from a variety of sources and processes — most of which comes from human caused activities across specific sectors as shown in the graphic below by the Climate and Clean Air Coalition.

These sources of methane emissions are important because in certain sectors like fossil fuel extraction (namely oil, gas, and coal) or waste, a disproportionate amount of emissions can come from a select number of point sources (which we’ll cover in greater detail in a future post) and plenty can be done to reduce emissions today thanks to a growing base of scientific research.

Remote observations are making methane emissions visible

Methane has long been underemphasized compared to CO2 as a mitigation priority, but the time-bound urgency of the climate crisis has thrust methane into the spotlight. Remote sensing technologies, including satellites and aircraft, are changing the game by detecting methane emissions from a variety of sources around the world. Carbon Mapper plays an important role in this space (pun intended). Our mission is to fill gaps in the emerging global ecosystem of methane and CO2 monitoring systems by delivering data at facility scale that is precise, timely, and accessible to empower science-based decision making and action. To date, observations by Carbon Mapper and others are providing insights on the widely varying nature of methane emissions in key sectors and highlighting opportunities to address them.

The oil and gas (O&G) sector is a prime example

As the second largest global source of methane (accounting for an estimated 23% of global emissions) O&G is ripe for emissions reductions. Resources to assess and monitor O&G infrastructure are becoming more robust. Many leading oil and gas companies have already established methane intensity targets and are actively participating in programs to improve transparency and accountability.

Yet, in spite of being one of the most well understood sectors (compared to waste or agriculture which we’ll address in future posts), emissions still aren’t cut-and-dry. O&G methane emissions can come from leaks, venting, and/or flaring and specific emissions sources can vary—from unlit flares to gathering pipelines to offshore facilities. Sometimes, methane plumes can be difficult to detect with ground or handheld sensors (e.g., due to their remote location), track (due to its persistence or lack thereof), and/or quantify. However, the good news is that once emissions are identified, they can often be addressed with existing, cost-effective technologies.

Carbon Mapper has conducted numerous airborne surveys of the United States’ largest oil- and gas-producing basins and has published data and insights indicating that methane emissions from sources in these regions are often higher than reported, come from a disproportionately small number of facilities, and can be mitigated in the near-term. This helpful and actionable data will become more widely available upon the launch of the Carbon Mapper Coalition satellites targeting late 2023/early 2024.

Caption: Plumes of methane emissions at three individual oil and gas sources detected by Carbon Mapper airborne surveys using NASA JPLs AVIRIS-NG and the Arizona State University Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science’s Global Airborne Observatory (GAO).

Methane momentum is building

Thankfully, momentum has been building to scale up methane mitigation efforts at the international level and within key sectors, and many of these efforts are built upon a strong foundation of emissions transparency built by impactful satellite programs such as the European Space Agency’s TROPOMI instrument.

COP26 was considered “the methane moment,” where nearly 100 countries signed on to the Global Methane Pledge, committing to reduce emissions 30% by 2030 from 2020 levels. As of November 2022, that number grew to 150 signatories.

At the same time:

  • Governments around the world are focused on updating or creating new methane regulations such as in the US, Canada, Norway, the Netherlands, Ecuador, and Colombia, among others.
  • UNEP’s International Methane Emissions Observatory launched the Methane Alert and Response System (MARS) at COP27, an initiative to coordinate global efforts to detect and act on major methane emissions sources.
  • Satellites and data platforms are becoming a major tool in the mitigation toolbox. Increasingly, they are positioned to play an important and growing role in gathering the data needed to prioritize and act on methane to support corporate methane targets as well as international ambitions, such as the Global Methane Pledge. A number of existing public and private satellite missions are already contributing to this, and more are on the way, including the first Carbon Mapper Coalition satellites in coordination with partners including Planet Labs PBC and NASA JPL as well as the launch of EDF’s MethaneSAT. 

Making headway in reductions of methane across sectors requires continued monitoring and an understanding of the unique challenges to successful mitigation. Detecting, assessing, analyzing and quantifying emissions lays the groundwork for change, and this is a goal we’re proud to advance each day.

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