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MethaneSAT Sets New Standards on Emissions Research – PositiveOutlooks for the Reduction of Global Warming

Updated: Mar 31

Anna Matthei




From: Time


As the world grapples with record-breaking temperatures, the collaboration between EDF and Google offers a beacon of hope, using satellite data to visualize and confront the stark reality of methane emissions from fossil fuel extraction, potentially revolutionizing our response to climate change. Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF) satellite, MethaneSAT, will collect satellite data that will be analyzed using Google’s AI and infrastructure mapping tools in order to mitigate future methane emissions. Methane is over 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere.

As global warming progresses, it is essential that we leverage our current technological advances to stop the cycles of record summers the world has seen this past decade. By visualizing the emissions data and making it available via Google Earth Engine, perhaps there will be less debate on whether or not climate change is real and more effort being put into how we can reverse the effects of global warming. 

Methane from human sources is responsible for about 30% of global warming, most of which is a result of the extraction of oil and gas. The satellite imagery is supposed to help trace the relationship between Google’s information on oil and gas infrastructure with methane being released into the air, as detected by MethaneSAT. In short, the EDF and Google are now going to release data showing the direct impacts of fossil fuel extraction. Whether or not this will encourage investment and transitions to renewable energy is to be seen, but this could be a great leap forward into holding the fossil fuel sector accountable.  

Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth system science at Stanford, believes that satellites, such as MethaneSAT, can bring more transparency to the elusive oil and gas sector. Researchers are often blocked from accessing emission levels using low-lying planes in certain countries, and facilities are often guarded away from the media and public. Satellites allow that level of secrecy to be peeled back. This is crucial in measuring the effect of fossil fuel extraction, but also in giving quantifiable evidence to court if any environmental emission regulations are challenged by the data from MethaneSAT in combination with data on oil and gas infrastructure. 

IGOs such as the International Energy Agency (IEA) also have been tracking country level emissions of methane for quite some time. Taking into account the short-term opportunities of tracking and limiting methane emissions is a global opportunity to reverse climate change, and the United States along with organizations like the IEA should support these efforts by continuing their research and developments in regulation. The present Biden administration has taken notice of this and is finalizing new methane standards, announced at COP28. 

This is a huge leap forward from about a decade ago, when the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was off by 60% of the estimated methane emissions produced by the United States, revealed by this  2012 to 2018 study. This 60% gap is enough to fuel 10 million homes for a year, worth an estimated $2 billion. One can only hope that we continue to progress forward so that we are more accurate in our assessments. 

However, when looking closer at the capabilities of MethaneSAT, there is still more work to be done. According to the developers of MethaneSAT, “like other passive remote sensing technologies that measure light in the shortwave infrared part of the spectrum, MethaneSAT will not be able to measure methane at night”. This could be an issue in the future, so more work needs to be done to lessen the limits of satellite data, including the need to account for cloud coverage that can also limit the effectiveness of MethaneSAT.



Sources:


Funk, Giancarlo Pasquini, Alison Spencer, Alec Tyson and Cary. “Why Some Americans Do Not See Urgency on Climate Change.” Pew Research Center Science & Society, 9 Aug. 2023, https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2023/08/09/why-some-americans-do-not-see-urgency-on-climate-change/.


Google Earth Engine. https://earthengine.google.com.


IEA (2022), Global Methane Tracker 2022, IEA, Paris https://www.iea.org/reports/global-methane-tracker-2022, License: CC BY 4.0


Kluger, Jeffery. “MethaneSAT: The 200 Best Inventions of 2022.” Time, 10 Nov. 2022, https://time.com/collection/best-inventions-2022/6228212/methanesat/.


Liao, Fiona, et al. MethaneSAT: A New Era Of Transparency For Methane Measurement. https://business.edf.org/wp-content/blogs.dir/90/files/MethaneSAT.pdf.


Maguire, Yael. “How Satellites, Algorithms and AI Can Help Map and Trace Methane Sources.” Google, 14 Feb. 2024, https://blog.google/outreach-initiatives/sustainability/how-satellites-algorithms-and-ai-can-help-map-and-trace-methane-sources/.


Major Studies Reveal 60% More Methane Emissions. Environmental Defense Fund, https://www.edf.org/climate/methane-studies


“MethaneSAT.” MethaneSAT, https://www.methanesat.org/


US EPA, OA. Biden-Harris Administration Finalizes Standards to Slash Methane Pollution, Combat Climate Change, Protect Health, and Bolster American Innovation. 2 Dec. 2023, https://www.epa.gov/newsreleases/biden-harris-administration-finalizes-standards-slash-methane-pollution-combat-climate.

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