UN Launches Satellite-Based System to Pinpoint Global Methane Hot Spots

Satellite images of a Russian gas pipeline (left) reveal a large methane leak (right), September 6, 2019.

Satellite images of a Russian gas pipeline (left) reveal a large methane leak (right), September 6, 2019. KAYRROS AND MODIFIED COPERNICUS DATA, 2019

The UN is establishing a new system that uses satellite data to root out of sources of methane, a potent heat-trapping gas, and notify governments and businesses, it announced Friday.

The new Methane Alert and Response System, part of the UN Environment Programme’s International Methane Emissions Observatory, will be the first publicly available global database of methane hot spots.

Methane traps 80 times as much heat as carbon dioxide. But unlike carbon dioxide, methane lingers in the atmosphere for only around a decade, meaning that swift cuts to those emissions can help curb warming in the short term. Methane levels hit a new high this year, driven in part by leaks, venting, and flaring from oil and gas infrastructure.

“These emissions often peak in specific areas for limited amounts of time,” Frans Timmermans, executive vice president of the European Commission, one of the project’s funders, said in a statement. “Early detection of these peaks makes it possible to respond faster.”

The new UN system will gather data from an existing network of satellites, initially focusing on large methane leaks from oil and gas drilling sites and pipelines. Eventually, it will spot methane issuing from coal mines, landfills, livestock, and rice paddies as well.

The system is launching with initial funding from the European Commission, the U.S. government, Global Methane Hub, and the Bezos Earth Fund. It will support a pledge, signed by 119 countries, to cut methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030 to help limit warming to 1.5 degrees C.

“We are seeing methane emissions increase at an accelerated rate,” Kelly Levin, chief of science, data, and systems change at the Bezos Earth Fund, said in a statement. “With this initiative, armed with greater data and transparency, companies and governments can make greater strides to reduce methane emissions, and civil society can keep them accountable to their promises.”


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