Making the invisible visible: Methane solutions offer a down payment on our climate future

As the world strives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, there’s a super pollutant headed in the wrong direction. For the second year in a row, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) have observed record annual increases in atmospheric methane. And this year’s increase is the largest on record since measurements began four decades ago.

Methane has a global warming potential 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. Climate scientists, political leaders and civil society actors have begun to realize that reducing methane emissions now offers the greatest opportunity to combat near-term warming. Fortunately, many opportunities exist to reduce methane emissions, including plugging oil and gas leaks, rethinking waste disposal, and activating markets. But first we need to know where these emissions are coming from. By making the invisible visible, the rise in global methane emissions can be reversed.

Elimination of methane leaks in oil and gas systems

The oil and gas sector is the world’s second largest source of methane, accounting for around 25% of global emissions. Operating without leakage is a priority and many tools are already at our disposal.

A growing number of satellites are spotting methane leaks. Some are massive, including releases during oil and gas maintenance operations or equipment failures that are not accounted for in current emissions inventories. A recent study identified ultra-emitters estimated at 8-12% of total global methane emissions from oil and gas, which have so far gone undetected. And data collection by Carbon Mapper and EDF in the Permian Basin of Texas and New Mexico shows that fixing persistent leaks from pipelines, well pads, compressor stations and processing facilities could immediately reduce 100,000 tonnes of methane per year.

Beyond satellite sensing, RMI and our academic partners at Stanford University and the University of Calgary have developed open-source models to estimate methane emissions throughout the life cycle of carbon chains. oil and gas supply. This climate intelligence can help guide policies and design market strategies to reduce methane emissions. For example, EU efforts to replace leaking Russian gas with cleaner supplies could reduce methane emissions by almost 40% in the short term, as Germany accelerates its transition to 100% renewable electricity. .

A combination of continued monitoring, enhanced monitoring and increased operator attention can “tighten the screws” on leaking infrastructure to reduce the methane footprint of this important sector.

Rethinking waste methane

The waste sector is another major source of methane, accounting for around one in five tonnes of methane emitted each year. However, methane from waste systems around the world is less well understood than oil and gas systems. Governments have long neglected the waste sector, and emissions may be even greater than regulators currently assume.

Validating model estimates with direct measurements, such as remote sensing, can improve residual methane inventories. For example, the two new Carbon Mapper satellites launched in 2023 will improve the detection of methane waste. In the meantime, this non-profit organization continues to conduct aircraft overflight campaigns to detect and analyze residual methane emissions, starting in North America.

Large methane plumes from landfills and unmanaged landfills

Source of methane: Carbon Mapper, 2021 available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LzB3dR6zRyU&t=70s.

Source of methane: Carbon Mapper, 2021 available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LzB3dR6zRyU&t=70s.

There are many waste-methane solutions, both technical and behavioral. These include preventing food waste, diverting organic waste for treatment, converting landfills to modern, well-managed engineered landfills, and designing and operating landfills to optimize methane recovery. The World Bank estimates that organic waste accounts for 64-68% of municipal solid waste streams worldwide. Reducing food and other organic waste provides significant methane reductions. Additionally, converting open landfills – often found in developing countries – to modern engineered landfills not only provides climate benefits, but also helps protect public health and safety. For example, in 2005, the Leuwigajah landfill in Bandung, Indonesia recorded the second deadliest landslide of waste in history, burying 71 houses and killing 143 people.

An integrated waste management strategy that combines multiple mitigation solutions upstream (before waste reaches landfills) and downstream (in landfills) is needed to reduce methane emissions from waste. A new report (due summer 2022) from RMI, Carbon Mapper and IG3IS will dive into more detail on mitigating methane emissions from solid waste.

Activating Markets

We can’t manage what we don’t measure. Together, satellites and models can identify and quantify the various methane emissions from oil and gas, waste and other sectors. With this climate intelligence, companies and countries can clean up their operations, regulate methane and put a price on emissions.

Actions and new proposals are underway. The Global Methane Pledge was signed at COP26 with financial support from the Methane Hub. More than 100 countries have pledged to reduce more than eight gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions per year by 2030. This is equivalent to the emissions of all global transport.

Oil and gas companies voluntarily certify their methane emissions using open source methods and independent verification. The United States House of Representatives passed the Building back better (HR 5376) in 2021, which would charge the oil and gas industry $900 per ton for its methane emissions. (After two years, the methane levy would increase to $1,500 per ton). And, as the largest importer of traded gas globally, the EU uses its market power to take advantage of methane emission reductions. EU gas (mainly from Norway) is estimated to be much less methane intensive than the global gas supply. European Commission regulations Methane strategycoupled with a border carbon tax, could significantly reduce methane emissions.

While the CO2 poses a long-term climate threat, reducing methane provides climate benefits in the coming decade. Once spotted, remedies are available. Markets respond to prices and regulations. These are the best tools available to quickly reduce methane emissions that are immediately climate-saving. The proof will come soon enough when NOAA releases its next annual measurements of atmospheric methane. The goal is to reverse current methane trends so that next year, and every year after, this super pollutant becomes increasingly rare in our atmosphere.

By Deborah Gordon, Ebun Ayandele

© 2021 Institute of the Rockies. Published with permission. Originally posted on RMI Outlet.

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Elaine R. Knight