UN announces new methane monitoring program – challenging Australia’s coal industry

The UN has just announced a worldwide satellite methane monitoring system, which may be instrumental in highlighting which countries and companies around the world are shirking their environmental responsibilities.

This is particularly relevant for Australia, as our ‘fugitive’ greenhouse gas emissions make up over 10% of our total emissions – the second highest in the world.

Australia has already been in focus for possible underreporting of methane emissions. A study using satellite technology suggested one Queensland mine was potentially emitting 35 times more methane than it was reporting.

The government told Cosmos at the time that “…satellite data is not currently reliable enough on its own for emissions estimates, given technical challenges like visibility through clouds or estimates on uneven ground.”

The new UN system is called the Methane Alert and Response System (MARS), a ‘data to action’ platform using the International Methane Emissions Observatory.

MARS will use data from global mapping satellites to identify very large methane plumes and methane hot spots, and attribute the emissions to a specific source.

The UN Environmental Program (UNEP) will then notify governments and companies about the emissions, expecting the responsible entity can take appropriate action.

Australia has the second highest share of fugitive greenhouse gas emissions – 10.4% of our total share of emissions, according to the International Energy Agency. The first is the Russian Federation.

Read more: Satellite mapping is preparing Australian cities for a warming earth

Cosmos reported back in August on under-reported methane emissions in Queensland – particularly the Hail Creek Mine, which researchers suggested was leaking more methane then then all surface mines in Queensland combined.

Methane is the second most abundant greenhouse gas in our atmosphere, after carbon dioxide, and it’s 25 times as potent at trapping heat. Because it is much more potent but doesn’t stay in the atmosphere for as long, it is a good greenhouse gas to target to begin getting emissions under control.

Gas like methane can escape from coal seams during coal mining – if this isn’t noted in “bottom-up emissions” it’s called ‘leaking’. In coal mining, the methane and other gas is usually released from degasification or ventilation systems. Gases are a by-product of the process of coal formation – where organic material, in the absence of oxygen, is heated and compressed over time. Some coal-mining regions can be particularly methane rich.

“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.”

The MARS system will begin with very large point sources of methane from the energy sector, and will integrate data from the rapidly expanding system of methane-detecting satellites, to include lower-emitting area sources, and more frequent detection.

Data on coal, waste, livestock and rice will be added gradually to MARS to support Global Methane Pledge implementation.

UNEP will continue to monitor the event location and make the data and analysis available to the public between 45 and 75 days after detection. If requested, MARS partners will provide technical or advisory services such as help in assessing mitigation opportunities.

Professor Peter Newman AO, an environmental scientist at the Curtin University says this is a massive change to emissions reporting.

“I am at COP27 and just witnessed an amazing presentation from Al Gore on his Climate Trace research that gets data on actual emissions of greenhouse gases from satellite data. It blows away all the data being presented in the Global Carbon Project, which is based on self-reporting by nations.”

“Climate Trace shows that oil and gas are the big error as they only report around half of their actual emissions generated in production of their fuels.

“Actual emissions, that include methane leaks, shows oil and gas are perhaps only reporting one third of their real emissions. Other major errors are made by power plants. The top 500 sources of emissions globally emit more than all of the US emissions with 51% coming from power plants.”

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