UN’s new satellite sees global methane emissions

The United Nations has announced a new satellite system designed to detect climate-warming methane emissions and allow governments and businesses to respond accordingly.

The high-tech system is part of UN global efforts to slow climate change by tackling methane. The Methane Alert and Response System (MARS) intends to scale up international efforts to detect and act on significant emissions sources transparently and fast-track the implementation of the Global Methane Pledge.

MARS, which was launched during the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference, is a data-to-action platform as part of the UNEP International Methane Emissions Observatory (IMEO) strategy to get policy-relevant data into the right hands for emissions mitigation.

The UN Environment Program (UNEP) is the leading global voice on the environment. It provides leadership and encourages partnership in caring for the environment by inspiring, informing, and enabling nations and peoples to improve their quality of life without compromising that of future generations.

Methane responsible for 25% of climate change

UNEP claims that methane is a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to at least a quarter of today’s climate warming and is released by human activities; it is responsible for around 25% of anthropogenic climate change. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we must cut methane emissions by at least 30% by 2030—the goal of the Global Methane Pledge—to keep the 1.5°C temperature limit within reach. Developed in the Global Methane Pledge Energy Pathway framework—with initial funding from the European Commission, the US government, Global Methane Hub, and the Bezos Earth Fund—MARS will allow UNEP to corroborate emissions reported by companies and characterize changes over time. MARS will be implemented with partners, including the International Energy Agency and the UNEP-hosted Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC).

UNEP is at the forefront of methane emissions reduction in line with the Paris Agreement goal of keeping global temperature rise below 2°C. UNEP’s work revolves around two pillars: Data and policy. It also supports companies and governments across the globe to use its unique global database of empirically verified methane emissions to target strategic mitigation actions and support science-based policy options through the IMEO. Further, UNEP fosters high-level commitments through advocacy work and supports countries to implement measures that reduce methane emissions through CCAC. Both initiatives are core implementers of the Global Methane Pledge.

Below targets

“As UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report showed before this climate summit, the world is far off track on efforts to limit global warming to 1.5°C,” said Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director. “Reducing methane emissions can make a big and rapid difference, as this gas leaves the atmosphere far quicker than carbon dioxide. MARS is a big step in helping governments and companies deliver on this important short-term climate goal.”

In addition to supporting MARS, the Global Methane Hub and the Bezos Earth Fund are funding other UNEP IMEO activities. These include baseline studies and initial work on agricultural methane emissions, where integrating multi-scale ground measurements with emerging satellite capacity is expected to provide improved quantification.

“We are seeing methane emissions increase at an accelerated rate. 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,” said Dr. Kelly Levin, chief of science, data and systems change at the Bezos Earth Fund.

The 1st global methane detection, notification system

MARS will be the first publicly available global system to connect methane detection to notification processes transparently. It will use state-of-the-art satellite data to identify significant emission events, notify relevant stakeholders, and support and track mitigation progress. MARS will alert governments, companies, and operators about important methane sources to foster rapid mitigation action for this potent gas.

“The science is clear. We need to reduce global methane emissions by at least 30% by 2030, to keep 1.5°C alive. Fortunately, action on methane emissions are one of the most cost-effective and impactful actions a country can take,” said Marcelo Mena, CEO of Global Methane Hub. “Therefore, Global Methane Hub is pleased to partner with UNEP and the Bezos Earth Fund on providing critical resources—to the MARS initiative—that can enable the identification and rapid response to major methane emissions from the energy sector, as well as take the first steps in enabling satellite observations to address methane emissions from the agricultural sector.”

With significant point sources from the energy sector, MARS will integrate data from the rapidly expanding system of methane-detecting satellites to include lower-emitting area sources and more frequent detection. Data on coal, waste, livestock, and rice will be added gradually to MARS to support the Global Methane Pledge implementation.

“Cutting methane is the fastest opportunity to reduce warming and keep 1.5°C within reach, and this new alert and response system is going to be a critical tool for helping all of us deliver on the Global Methane Pledge,” said John Kerry, US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate.

Detecting huge methane plumes, hot spots

MARS will use data from global mapping satellites to identify huge methane plumes and hot spots and data from high-resolution satellites to attribute the emissions to a specific source. UNEP will notify governments and companies about the emissions, directly or through partners, so that the responsible entity can take appropriate action.

“To keep the global temperature rise limited to 1.5 degrees, it is crucial that we tackle methane emissions. These emissions often peak in specific areas for limited amounts of time, for example, in the energy sector due to leaks, venting, and flaring. Early detection of these peaks makes it possible to respond faster,” Frans Timmermans, European Commission EVP. “MARS does just that. Thanks to funding and free satellite data from Copernicus, the European Union’s Earth Observation program, the system will enable every country to take rapid action to reduce methane emissions.”

If requested, MARS partners will provide technical or advisory services such as help in assessing mitigation opportunities. UNEP will continue to monitor the event location and make the data and analysis available to the public between 45 and 75 days after detection.

“MARS is an important new tool to help pinpoint major methane leaks,” said Fatih Birol, International Energy Agency Executive Director. “As IEA analysis has highlighted, transparency is a vital part of the solution to tackle the methane problem, and this new system will help producers detect leaks and stop them without delay if and when they occur.” (Story, photo, and video courtesy of UNEP)