Methane, an invisible and odourless gas, is wreaking havoc on our climate. This potent greenhouse gas, primarily released by oil and gas industries, agriculture sectors and waste, poses a dire threat to our environment. The primary culprits are super-emitter events — immense methane leaks that can release harmful gas into the atmosphere for weeks due to equipment malfunctions. These leaks are challenging to detect due to methane’s colourless, odourless characteristics. However, it’s essential to understand that methane is 80 times more harmful than CO2 during the 20 years after it’s released into the atmosphere.
The Invisible Menace
Methane is a critical component of natural gas and a significant contributor to climate change. Despite being less prevalent in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide (CO2), methane is much more potent. Over a 20-year period, methane can trap 80 times more heat than CO2, making it a significant driver of global warming.
Methane’s high global warming potential is compounded by its increasing concentration in the atmosphere. In 2021, atmospheric methane reached 1,908 parts per billion (ppb), 2.6 times higher than pre-industrial levels. This increase is primarily due to human activities, with the oil and gas sectors being prominent contributors.
Methane emissions from these sectors arise from various sources, including drilling, production, and other operations. Some leaks are accidental, resulting from poorly maintained or regulated equipment, while others are deliberate, such as venting unwanted gas released during oil drilling.
The Impact of Methane Super-Emitter Events
“Super-emitter” events refer to instances where a site gushes significant amounts of methane into the atmosphere. In 2022 alone, more than 1,000 super-emitter sites were detected globally, primarily from oil and gas facilities. The worst single leak spewed pollution equivalent to the emissions from 67 million running cars.
These super-emitter events pose a significant threat to the global climate. Methane emissions account for approximately 25% of current global warming, and there has been an alarming surge in emissions since 2007. This acceleration could be the most considerable threat to keeping global heating below 1.5C and gravely risks triggering catastrophic climate tipping points.
Scientists have identified several sites critical to preventing a methane-driven disaster, as addressing leaks from fossil fuel sites offers the fastest and most affordable way to reduce methane emissions.
The Double-Edged Sword
Despite its harmful effects, methane also presents an opportunity. Due to its short lifespan in the atmosphere, rapid action to reduce methane emissions could significantly slow global heating. The United Nations states that a 45% cut in emissions by 2030 could prevent a 0.3C rise in temperature, providing a golden opportunity to act decisively on the climate crisis.
Detecting Methane Leaks
Detecting methane leaks is a significant challenge due to the gas’s invisible and odourless nature. However, advancements in technology are providing new tools to identify and measure these emissions.
One such tool is satellites, which can detect and measure large methane emissions. While limited by conditions such as cloud cover, dense forests, or snow cover, satellites have proven instrumental in identifying super-emitter events.
Another method involves the use of drones and sensor-equipped aircraft for “top-down” readings of methane in the atmosphere. This approach, combined with “bottom-up” readings taken at the emission source, provides a more comprehensive picture of methane emissions.
The Role of Data and Transparency
Accurate and transparent data is crucial in the fight against methane emissions. The International Methane Emissions Observatory, launched by the United Nations Environment Programme, aims to create a public database of empirically verified methane emissions. This database provides governments and companies with the necessary information to develop effective policies and management practices.
Asset-level methane inventories based on measurements are an essential component of this effort. This data provides the necessary information to those who have the power to cut the emissions, promoting accountability and transparency.
The Need for Action
While the detection of methane leaks is crucial, it is equally important to take action to reduce these emissions. Research has found that plugging leaks and ending deliberate venting would pay for themselves at 80% of oil and gas sites and 98% of coal mines. This could be done by capturing and selling the extra gas or implementing solutions at low net cost.
However, despite the availability of practical solutions, methane emissions remain high. This is due to a lack of regulation and enforcement, particularly in countries like Turkmenistan, Russia, the United States, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Algeria, which have the highest number of super-emitter events.
The Call to Action
The increasing evidence of methane’s true threat calls for more significant action than ever before. With this knowledge, we must intensify our efforts to