UN announces new satellite-based system to detect methane emissions

As part of worldwide efforts to slow climate change, the United Nations (UN) has unveiled a new satellite-based system to detect methane emissions, a gas that is contributing to climate warming.

The Methane Alert and Response System (MARS) was launched at COP27, the UN’s annual conference on climate change. It is a data-to-action platform, set up as part of strategies to curb methane emissions.

Through MARS, governments and businesses will be able to access policy-relevant data and respond to the threats of climate change.

Methane pollution’s impact on the environment

According to The Sixth Assessment Report by The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), methane contributes to at least a quarter of today’s global warming issues. The IPCC says we must cut methane emissions by at least 30% by 2030 to keep world pledges to the 1.5°C temperature limit within reach.

“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.

Developed in the framework of the Global Methane Pledge Energy Pathway, MARS allows the UN’s Environment Programme (UNEP) to corroborate emissions reported by companies and characterise their impact over time.

“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, Executive Director of UNEP.

“Reducing methane emissions can make a big and rapid difference, as this gas leaves the atmosphere far quicker than carbon dioxide. The Methane Alert and Response System is a big step in helping governments and companies deliver on this important short-term climate goal.”

Using notification processes to detect the presence of methane

MARS will be the first publicly available system that is capable of connecting methane detection to notification processes. It uses state-of-the-art satellite data in order to identify major emission events, notify relevant stakeholders, and support and track mitigation progress.

“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,” explained Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice President of the European Commission.

Timmermans continued: “The Methane Alert and Response System does just that. Thanks to funding and free satellite data from Copernicus, the European Union’s Earth Observation programme, the system will enable every country to take rapid action to reduce methane emissions.”

Beginning with very large point sources from the energy sector, the system will integrate data from the rapidly expanding system of methane-detecting satellites to induce lower-emitting area sources and more frequent detection. The impact of methane emissions from coal, waste, livestock, and rice will be gradually added to MARS.

“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.

Components of the alert and response system

MARS will use data from global mapping satellites to identify areas with very high amounts of methane emissions and will attribute these to a specific source. UNEP will then notify governments and companies about the emissions, either directly or through partners, so that the responsible source can take appropriate action.

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 45-75 days after detection.

Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, concluded: “The Methane Alert and Response System is an important new tool to help pinpoint the source of methane emissions. 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.”

About the UN Environment Programme

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 people to improve their quality of life, without compromising that of future generations.

UNEP is at the forefront of methane emissions reduction, in line with the Paris Agreement Goal of keeping global temperature rise well below 2°C. The agency’s work revolves around two pillars: data and policy. UNEP 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 International Methane Emissions Observatory (IMEO).

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