With methane emissions soaring, the UN is sending in the satellites

With support from the UN, private and public initiatives, a fleet of satellites equipped with space-based detection and sensors are being launched to identify and measure the concentration of methane in the atmosphere. The main component of natural gas, methane is over 80 times more heat trapping than CO2. Now the second-most prominent greenhouse gas, it can leak at all stages of its production and use — from wells, refineries, pipelines and even at homes and buildings. Globally in 2022, methane emissions from the energy industry totaled some 135 million metric tons, slightly higher than the year before. As lead writer Michael Buchsbaum relates, the new satellites will be able to locate emissions even from remote or inaccessible areas and hopefully help regulators and operators finally control them.

Still out of control

A waste stream of agricultural and other human activities, unlike carbon dioxide, for the natural gas sector, methane is not an unwanted by-product but the sought-after output of fracking and other drilling projects. When refined, “natural” gas is made up of up to 90% fossil methane.

Two years ago at COP 26 in Glasgow, Scotland, more than 150 countries promised to slash their methane emissions by 30% from 2020 levels by 2030 under the U.S.- and EU-led Global Methane Pledge.

At same the gathering, dozens of oil and gas producers also joined the Oil and Gas Methane Pledge (OGMP), a UN-organized program that remains the world’s only attempt to set a comprehensive measurement-based reporting framework.

But despite this, emissions are not coming down, and in some places are even going up.

And two years after pledging to get methane under control, few companies and fewer countries have detailed how they will achieve this. For decades oil and gas producers have mostly been self-reporting their methane pollution while setting individual pollution targets using whatever rubrics they chose.

New reporting from the Energy Information Agency, university scientists, and environmental groups show that national governments are significantly undercounting total emissions.

Will Dubai make a difference?

At COP28, Kayrros, a Paris-based company using satellite images to detect and measure methane emissions signed a deal to provide leak data to the UN Environment Programme’s methane alert and response project.

Working in conjunction with the IEA, UN, and the climate nonprofit RMI, regulators and administrators are focusing on super-emitters – including facilities, equipment, and other infrastructure, typically in the fossil fuel, waste, or agriculture sectors, that emit emissions at a rate of 100 kilograms per hour or more.

During the UN summit, fifty oil and gas companies including Adnoc, Saudi Aramco, ExxonMobil, and Shell voluntary pledged to zero out methane emissions by 2030 and others joined an expanded OGMP.

Accounting for 40% of global production, new satellites will now track whether these companies actually meet their promises.

“Rapid cuts in methane emissions from fossil fuels could lead to a reduction of 0.1°C in global temperature rise by mid-century,” said Antoine Rostand, CEO of Kayrros.

On the meeting sidelines, various philanthropies also pledge to invest $450 million to help tackle methane over the next three years.

The funding from philanthropies including the Bezos Earth Fund, Bloomberg and the Sequoia Climate Foundation will additionally track other non-carbon dioxide greenhouse gases as well.

A separate methane initiative was also announced to use satellites to track whether the companies now part of the OGMP to keep their promise. The billionaire businessman and philanthropist Michael Bloomberg pledged $40 million to the initiative — a partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), an international NGO and partner in global efforts to control the greenhouse gas, to launch its own satellite early next year.

During the first half of 2024, MethaneSat, a subsidiary of EDF, will launch the most precise methane-tracking satellite yet.

Capable of more robustly tracking emission rates and locations, once operational, it will better enable the comparison of emissions performance against legal and voluntary targets. That includes emerging and developing economies, where state-owned oil companies have been largely absent from methane pledges until now.

Once in orbit it will join several other satellites launched into space in 2023 to monitor the gas.

This new generation of satellites will be able to pinpoint methane leaks almost anywhere and, within days, computers equipped with AI models can calculate the amount of emissions escaping.

Nations promise changes

Also at COP28, several of the biggest global economies also announced new regulations and policies on methane.

While in Dubai, China further detailed their long-awaited methane strategy. Outlet China Dialogue details that the new methane plan is significant in two regards. One is its sheer importance to curbing global warming, by tackling a potent greenhouse gas. The other is its geopolitical weight, as a symbol of China–US climate cooperation.

Since the plan was published, China and the US have issued a new joint statement on addressing climate change, which reiterated their commitment to tackling methane. A meeting between the two countries’ leaders also pledged to enhance climate cooperation.

Estimates by the International Energy Agency (IEA) put the country’s methane emissions during 2022 at 55.7 million tonnes, or 15.6% of the global total;

“China is the world’s largest emitter of methane and in some sectors, like coal, it is near-impossible to cut global emissions down to size without its cooperation,” says Ryan Driskell Tate, director of the coal programme at the US-based NGO Global Energy Monitor (GEM).

Ahead of COP28, the EU also set new rules, agreeing to set methane emissions limits on Europe’s oil and gas imports from 2030, pressuring international suppliers to clamp down on leaks of the potent greenhouse gas as well as measure and report their methane emissions.

New regulations to ban most flaring and venting by 2027

After all-night talks, negotiators from EU member states and the European Parliament agreed to impose “maximum methane intensity values” by 2030 on producers abroad sending fossil fuels into Europe.

The import rules are likely to hit major gas suppliers which include Algeria, Russia and the U.S.

Though already cracking down on methane emissions, the US Environmental Protection Agency at Dubai also announced plans that could reduce an estimated 58 million tons of methane emissions over the next 15 years.

That figure is comparable to the emissions released by the entire US power sector in 2021, the agency said.

In an upcoming blog, we’ll examine the new U.S. rules in more detail.


L. Michael Buchsbaum is an energy and mining journalist and industrial photographer based in Germany. Since the mid-1990s, he has covered the social, environmental, economic and political impacts of the transition from fossil fuels towards renewables for dozens of industry magazines, journals, institutions and corporate clients. Born in the U.S., he emigrated to Germany and Europe to better document the Energiewende. He is also the host of The Global Energy Transition Podcast.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *