Why methane emissions are nonetheless a thriller

This text is from The Spark, MIT Know-how Evaluate’s weekly local weather e-newsletter. To obtain it in your inbox each Wednesday, join right here.

For those who comply with papers in local weather and power for lengthy sufficient, you’re sure to acknowledge some patterns. 

There are some things I’ll principally all the time see once I’m sifting via the most recent local weather and power analysis: one examine discovering that perovskite photo voltaic cells are getting much more environment friendly; one other exhibiting that local weather change is damaging an ecosystem in some unusual and surprising means. And there’s all the time some new paper discovering that we’re nonetheless underestimating methane emissions. 

That final one is what I’ve been excited about this week, as I’ve been reporting on a brand new survey of methane leaks from oil and gasoline operations within the US. (Sure, there are extra emissions than we thought there have been—get the small print in my story right here.) However what I discover much more attention-grabbing than the constant underestimation of methane is why this gasoline is so tough to trace down. 

Methane is the second most considerable greenhouse gasoline within the environment, and it’s answerable for round 30% of worldwide warming to date. The excellent news is that methane breaks down rapidly within the environment. The unhealthy information is that whereas it’s floating round, it’s a super-powerful greenhouse gasoline, far more potent than carbon dioxide. (Simply how way more potent is a sophisticated query that is dependent upon what time scale you’re speaking about—learn extra on this Q&A.)

The issue is, it’s troublesome to determine the place all this methane is coming from. We are able to measure the whole focus within the environment, however there are methane emissions from human actions, there are pure methane sources, and there are ecosystems that absorb a portion of all these emissions (these are known as methane sinks). 

Narrowing down particular sources generally is a problem, particularly within the oil and gasoline business, which is answerable for an enormous vary of methane leaks. Some are small and are available from previous tools in distant areas. Different sources are bigger, spewing enormous quantities of the greenhouse gasoline into the environment however just for brief instances. 

Plenty of tales about monitoring methane have been within the information lately, principally due to a methane-hunting satellite tv for pc launched earlier this month. It’s designed to trace down methane utilizing instruments known as spectrometers, which measure how gentle is mirrored and absorbed. 

This is only one of a rising variety of satellites which can be keeping track of the planet for methane emissions. Some take a large view, recognizing which areas have excessive emissions. Different satellites are trying to find particular sources and might see inside a number of dozen meters the place a leak is coming from. (If you wish to learn extra about why there are such a lot of methane satellites, I like to recommend this story from Emily Pontecorvo at Heatmap.)

However methane monitoring isn’t only a area sport. In a brand new examine printed in Nature, researchers used practically 1,000,000 measurements taken from airplanes flown over oil- and gas-producing areas to estimate whole emissions. 

The outcomes are fairly staggering: researchers discovered that, on common, roughly 3% of oil and gasoline manufacturing on the websites they examined winds up as methane emissions. That’s about 3 times the official authorities estimates utilized by the US Environmental Safety Company. 

I spoke with one of many authors of the examine, Evan Sherwin, who accomplished the analysis as a postdoc at Stanford. He in contrast the problem of understanding methane leaks to the parable of the blind males and the elephant: there are lots of items of the puzzle (satellites, planes, ground-based detection), and getting the entire story requires becoming all of them collectively. 

“I believe we’re actually beginning to see an elephant,” Sherwin instructed me. 

That image will proceed to get clearer as MethaneSAT and different surveillance satellites come on-line and researchers get to sift via the info. And that understanding will probably be essential as governments around the globe race to maintain guarantees about slashing methane emissions. 

Now learn the remainder of The Spark

Associated studying

For extra on how researchers are working to know methane emissions, give my newest story a learn. 

For those who’ve missed the information on methane-hunting satellites, try this story about MethaneSAT from final month. 

Pulling methane out of the environment might be a serious enhance for local weather motion. Some startups hope that spraying iron particles above the ocean may assist, as my colleague James Temple wrote in December. 

five planes flying out of white puffy clouds at different angles across a blue sky, leaving contrails behind


One other factor

Making minor adjustments to airplane routes may put a big dent in emissions, and a brand new examine discovered that these adjustments might be low-cost to implement. 

The hot button is contrails, skinny clouds that planes produce once they fly. Minimizing contrails means much less warming, and altering flight paths can scale back the quantity of contrail formation. Learn extra about how within the newest from my colleague James Temple

Maintaining with local weather  

New guidelines from the US Securities and Change Fee had been watered down, chopping off the most effective likelihood we’ve had at forcing firms to reckon with the hazards of local weather change, as Dara O’Rourke writes in a brand new opinion piece. (MIT Know-how Evaluate)

Sure, warmth pumps slash emissions, even when they’re hooked as much as a fairly soiled grid. Switching to a warmth pump is best than heating with fossil fuels principally in every single place within the US. (Canary Media)

Rivian introduced its new R2, a small SUV set to go on sale in 2026. The reveal indicators a shift to specializing in mass-market automobiles for the model. (Heatmap)

Toyota has centered on promoting hybrid automobiles as a substitute of absolutely electrical ones, and it’s paying off financially. (New York Instances)

→ Right here’s why I wrote in December 2022 that EVs wouldn’t be absolutely changing hybrids anytime quickly. (MIT Know-how Evaluate)

Some scientists suppose we must always all pay extra consideration to tiny aquatic vegetation known as azolla. They will repair their very own nitrogen and seize a whole lot of carbon, making them a great candidate for crops and even biofuels. (Wired)

New York is suing the world’s largest meat firm. The corporate has mentioned it’ll produce meat with no emissions by 2040, a declare that’s false and deceptive, based on the New York legal professional basic’s workplace. (Vox)

An enormous fireplace in Texas has destroyed a whole lot of properties. Local weather change has fueled dry circumstances, and energy tools sparked an intense fireplace that firefighters struggled to include. (Grist)

→ Lots of the properties destroyed within the blaze are uninsured, creating a troublesome path forward for restoration. (Texas Tribune)

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