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Why methane is a key battleground in the climate crisis

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By Antoine Rostand

· 5 min read

When we at Kayrros began our work, using AI and cutting-edge analytics to process raw satellite data and provide insights, the climate conversation centred mainly on carbon dioxide. It was carbon dioxide that was the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide that was warming the planet, and carbon dioxide that governments, companies and individuals had to strive to bring down. Methane, on the other hand, was little known and little understood. Part of our work involved educating our stakeholders of quite how devastating this gas could be.

What did that education involve? It involved explaining that methane is just as devastating to the climate as carbon dioxide, albeit in a different way. Over a 20-year period, it is more than 80 times as powerful, in terms of its warming power, as carbon dioxide. It is the main ingredient in natural gas, and responsible for around 25 percent of anthropogenic global warming today. Moreover, its concentration in the atmosphere is increasing more quickly now than at any time since the 1980s.

The good news is that acting to bring down methane can have climate effects far stronger than those caused by bringing down carbon dioxide. A main cause of methane are ‘super-emitters’: oil fields, pipelines, landfills, animal feedlots, and other sites and entities that persistently emit methane in great volume and at a rapid rate. And these can be dealt with. Indeed, dealing with super-emitters is cost-effective and practicable in a way that other forms of climate action aren’t. More still: studies show that rapidly bringing down methane emissions would have the same effect as taking every single vehicle globally off the road.

This is where data comes in. Without independent, reliable, verifiable and close to realtime information, we cannot know where the super-emitters are, how much they are emitting, and when. History, as well as our own experience, shows us that nation states cannot be relied on to paint an accurate picture of their emissions output. Without an accurate picture, targeted action is impossible.

By combining satellite imagery, taken from Copernicus satellites, and artificial intelligence, we have been able to discover that the rupture of a pipeline in Idaho caused a massive methane leak, with a major environmental impact. We have tracked continuously high methane emissions from the landfill in Amman, Jordan, despite investment from the European Union designed to make it cleaner. In the course of 2022, we reported 1,000 super-emitter events. And last year, we exposed huge leaks from two oil fields in Turkmenistan – leaks that represented more emissions spewed into the atmosphere than the UK manages in a year. This intervention caused the U.S. government to reach out to its counterparts in Turkmenistan and discuss ways to staunch the leaks and prevent further leaks from happening.

Instances of climate diplomacy like that one are pieces of good news. So too is the fact that the devastating impact of methane is now widespread. But there is some way to go. At COP26 in November 2021, many countries agreed to take action to reduce methane emissions by 30 percent from 2020 levels. It was described as the fastest way to reduce near-time warming and essential to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the benchmark agreed at the 2015 UN climate change conference. Yet our analysis of some of those nations towards the end of last year revealed that the vast majority of the signatories of the Global Methane Pledge, with Australia being the stand-out exception, had failed to bring down methane emissions. In many cases, methane emissions had, in fact, gone up. This was humbling.

The mood reflected this at COP28, where we attended as part of President Emmanuel Macron’s delegation. The overall tone of the conference was realistic, strategically pessimistic but still hopeful. Data was widely and rightly recognised as an absolutely essential piece of the climate puzzle: the only means by which we can take the kind of bold, targeted action needed to turn the tide. COP marked the first Global Stocktake, during which countries assessed their progress (or lack of it) towards the Paris agreement goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century. And we released a free, publicly available Methane Watch tool so that interested members of the public could increase their climate literacy and hold their governments accountable.

But hopeful, too, because methane was front and centre. On some days, there were up to four or five methane events held simultaneously. It reflected the consciousness among decision-makers who, as I have already said, long ignored methane, that methane is in fact a key battleground in the climate crisis, and that it can be addressed. A group of governments, philanthropic institutions and private-sector companies announced more than $1 billion in funding for methane reductions. COP opened and closed with renewed commitments bringing down emissions. This is very promising.

For now, regarding methane, action and accountability must be our twin emphases. Action, because the planet is getting hotter; last year was the hottest on record. Accountability, because action is worthless if it does not rest on good information.  Where companies can reduce their emissions, methane or otherwise, they must do so. Legislation aimed at bringing down methane is getting tougher, which means that companies who bury their heads in the sand stand to pay a high price.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Antoine Rostand is the President and co-founder of the environmental intelligence company Kayrros. Kayrros collects data from satellite imagery and uses AI and cutting-edge geoanalytics technology to provide insights to governments, investors, businesses, and researchers. Before founding Kayrros, Antoine was president and founder of the Schlumberger Energy Institute, a not-for-profit now known as the Kearney Energy Transition Institute. Antoine was also president and founder of Schlumberger Business Consulting.

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