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High-tech methane detectors are helping the US crack down on emissions

80 times more detrimental to our climate than carbon dioxide, methane is responsible for 30% of all warming since pre-industrial times. Here’s how the US is utilising tech to tackle such emissions domestically.

If you kept up with the key developments of COP26 last month, you’ll know that any chance of meeting the Paris Agreement all but relies on driving methane emissions down – as well as carbon dioxide, obviously.

While carbon has gained notoriety as the chief contributor to global warming, methane is a close second on the hit-list for environmentalists and governments. The sheer quantity of carbon rightly has it atop the agenda, but methane is actually 80 times more damaging as a greenhouse gas.

Though it was far from perfect, Glasgow did provide some progress in the way of a first global methane pledge. Specifically, more than 100 countries – including Japan, Canada, and the US – agreed to cut the global toll of atmospheric methane by 30% before 2030.

All delegates outlined plans to phase down livestock populations and the volume of decaying waste at landfills, both of which are huge emitters of methane. First, however, UN EU president Ursula von der Leyen believes policy makers should deal with the ‘low hanging fruit.’

What she’s referring to is fixing methane leaks from gas wells, pipelines, and fossil fuel productions. Wait, we already knew about leaking pipes?

Examining the trends of yearly data, we can ascertain that atmospheric methane continues to grow from leaks, but pinpointing where they are is another story entirely. Concentration of gas is typically recorded during rare aerial surveys, but real time data is scarcely available.

That’s why climate scientists like Los Angeles’ Riley Duren are turning to radar technology to address issues faster. His non-profit outfit, Carbon Mapper, has partnered with NASA and other organisers to build infrared technology capable of uncovering where methane precipitation is at its worst.

From there engineers can be sent to put out fires – not literally, though methane is dangerous.

Trialled in Utah, New Mexico, and parts of California, Duren describes the collaborative tech as a ‘loose federation of satellites, aircraft, and surface space measurements.’ The resulting images and videos show red and yellow specks at points across natural pipelines where gas is escaping.

In the company’s current capacity, it sends small planes over oil and gas operations and plans to launch its first satellite in 2023. Given we already have satellites for the monitoring of sea levels and natural disasters, that’s not an unreasonable goal.

The Biden administration is creating wider global demand for services such as these. Last month, the EPA announced new methane regulations which aim to cut 41 million tons of emissions by 2035.

‘Five years from now, we’ll have way more [tracking] solutions than we do today,’ said methane expert at Colorado State University Daniel Zimmerle. Furthermore, research market firms have estimated the market will grow to $26 billion USD by 2028. Impressive.

It’s important that pledges are followed up swiftly, given time is of the essence with our 2030 aims. As Duren rightly concludes, ‘Action needs to follow, and you can’t do that without having good data.’


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