UN’s MARS program launches methane detection into the Space Age

Daniel Zavala-Araiza

As countries and energy companies begin to translate methane reduction pledges into tangible progress, satellite technology is helping pinpoint where methane emissions occur, how much is being emitted and who is responsible for them.

The newly launched Methane Alert and Response System, called MARS, gives countries, energy companies, communities and stakeholders around the world a glimpse of the transparency they can expect as more satellites collect more emissions data from more parts of the globe.

Developed by the United Nations Environment Programme’s International Methane Emissions Observatory, or IMEO, with involvement from scientific and remote sensing experts around the world — including Environmental Defense Fund scientists —MARS will consolidate methane emissions data from a growing ecosystem of satellites to detect methane emissions, and notify and engage with critical stakeholders to respond to and mitigate those emissions.

Pinpointing methane emissions — large and small

MARS is an ambitious project, and it’s just a preview of what’s to come.

Initially, it will alert stakeholders of super emitters within the energy industry. Studies estimate that such large-emission events account for roughly 10% of global oil and gas emissions.

IMEO plans to add data sources as they become available, making it possible to also detect and characterize smaller emissions that contribute to a larger share of the sector’s total methane emissions.

Emissions data from MethaneSAT, which was developed by an Environmental Defense Fund subsidiary and is scheduled to launch in 2023, will be added to MARS once the satellite comes online.

Unlike existing satellites, MethaneSAT will detect smaller methane emissions by quantifying basin- and regional-level emissions with unprecedented precision. This exacting capability will help characterize hotspots and sources in places that would be missed by other satellites.

The surge in increasingly sophisticated methane detection and a growing focus on methane from industry and policymakers are mutually reinforcing trends. Better science is reinforcing the urgency and scale of the issue, which is driving better technology for solving the problem faster and more cost-effectively.

Cutting methane emissions is also an opportunity — the best one we have — to slow the rate of global warming while we decarbonize our energy systems.

How good data will help drive emissions down

Robust, transparent data and reporting make it easier to set, validate and achieve more ambitious methane reduction targets.

The European Union, the United States and more than 100 other countries have joined the Global Methane Pledge, a framework created a year ago for countries to work together to reduce human-caused methane emissions 30% by 2030.

To hit this target, government leaders and decision-makers have to know how much methane is being emitted and where it’s coming from — and who is responsible. 

Meanwhile, companies that have set reduction goals need accurate information to operationalize their mitigation efforts, but they often lack real-world, real-time emissions data.

Information from MethaneSAT and the various data streams that will feed MARS will be instrumental in providing transparent and trustworthy data that regulators and operators can use to form their action plans.

These data will also help track changes in emissions over time — which will in turn allow stakeholders and civil society to assess if mitigation targets are being met.

Growing availability of high-quality methane emissions data is a key to unlocking rapid reductions quickly. MARS and this new wave of satellite technology will spark a historic shift in how we understand, see and take action on methane emissions around the world.

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