Editor’s Note: Tianyi Sun is a climate scientist with US-based non-profit advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund, which undertakes climate research and provides scientific guidance on climate-related work. The views expressed in this commentary are the author’s own. Read more opinion at CNN.
For years, carbon dioxide has been the bogeyman of climate change, and rightly so. But the focus on CO2 has allowed other greenhouse gasses to slide under the radar. Methane, in particular – a potent greenhouse gas with more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide, pound-for-pound, over a 20-year period – has been overlooked.
Lately, new science has helped policymakers realize that not only is methane a powerful climate threat – it also represents a crucial opportunity to slow the rate of warming quickly. And the faster we act, the bigger that opportunity will be.
Human-caused methane is emitted from fossil fuel operations, agriculture, coal mining, landfills and other industries. It’s also the main component of natural gas and is responsible for more than a quarter of current global warming, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.
Methane’s high potency is a problem, but the silver lining is that it dissipates in the atmosphere after about a decade, whereas carbon dioxide can last centuries. It means that efforts to reduce methane emissions offer the fastest route to slowing global warming.
By cutting methane pollution from human-caused sources as quickly as possible, scientists estimate we could slow the worldwide rate of warming by as much as 30%.
New findings from my colleagues and I at the Environmental Defense Fund suggest that immediate action to reduce methane emissions, along with drastic cuts in CO2, could help preserve Arctic summer sea ice through 2100 and beyond. This is a critical climate milestone that can help preserve habitat for Arctic wildlife and avert additional acceleration of warming.
Methane from fossil fuel production is often emitted alongside other chemicals — like volatile organic compounds — which contribute to ozone, another greenhouse gas. So reducing methane emissions can also help lower surface levels of ozone, benefiting air quality and crop yields.
High-tech emissions tracking
Solutions are available and methane detection is key. New technologies enable us to locate and measure methane emissions faster and with greater precision than ever before. From drones and aircraft to a new generation of observation satellites, researchers and regulators alike are equipping themselves with the ability to see, in real time, where emissions are taking place – and who is responsible.
Next year, Environmental Defense Fund’s new subsidiary MethaneSAT will launch its own satellite with the help of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. It will provide near real-time, publicly available emissions data in higher resolution than ever before. We’ll be able to watch online whether emitters are living up to their promises to reduce methane emissions.
The first target: the global oil and gas system. In the US alone, oil and gas operators waste around 16 million metric tons of methane every year through leaks and flaring. Flaring is the process of burning away gas rather than letting it escape directly into the atmosphere, but research has shown that many flares malfunction or are extinguished and are therefore a significant source of methane emissions. MethaneSAT will allow us to verify, identify, and call out these emissions more effectively.
Existing technologies — such as regularly checking equipment for leaks and malfunctions that lead to methane emissions — can help eliminate 75% of emissions from the oil and gas sector, according to the International Energy Agency. At today’s elevated energy prices, nearly all these solutions can be implemented at no net cost.
Of course, the methane challenge extends far beyond the United States. World leaders have recognized both the urgency and the opportunity of methane reduction and have begun taking steps to capitalize on it.
Last fall, more than 100 countries signed the US and Europe-led Global Methane Pledge, agreeing to reduce their methane emissions 30% by 2030. Since then, other countries have signed on, with signatories now representing two-thirds of the global economy. With the help of MethaneSAT, we can hold these countries accountable for their promises to reduce methane.
Reducing methane emissions is the fastest, easiest and cheapest thing we can do to immediately slow the pace of climate change. Capturing all that methane could also help stabilize energy markets. For instance, an analysis by my colleagues at EDF found that if we captured the methane that escapes through leaks and flaring at U.S. oil and gas sites, we could meet half of the gas supply the US committed to Europe.
Transformational technology is making this opportunity possible, ushering in a new era of evidence-based accountability and transparency, which is exactly what we need to face down the climate challenge.