Jun 24, 2019 | Updated: 08:43 AM EDT

New Satellites Pinpoint Greenhouse Emissions on Earth

Apr 20, 2019 08:00 AM EDT


As governments, civilians, and everyone in between look for ways to limit greenhouse emissions, help may be on the way in the form of satellites. A series of satellites launched by various organizations have one purpose-to identify and pinpoint greenhouse emissions. Countries, corporations, and individual facilities can all be tracked by these space-bound spies-some of which are in orbit already.

As one example, the Environmental Defense Fund will launch its MethaneSAT in 2021. The satellite will only focus on methane emissions, making it quicker and less expensive to launch, but it will be able to hone in on those emissions with "exacting precision." EDF Senior VP Mark Brownstein said. "Space-based technologies are allowing us for the first time to quickly and cheaply measure greenhouse gases. Often times, both government and industry are not fully aware of the magnitude of the opportunity to cut emissions. With that data, they can take action."

GHGSat launched its first satellite in 2016, and is preparing to launch another into service this spring or summer. The company's first satellite observes oil & gas facilities, thermal and hydroelectric power stations, coal mines, landfills, animal feedlots, and natural sources. GHGSat expects "an order-of-magnitude performance improvement" from its soon-to-be-launched satellite.

What is a company's major concern? Of course, making money. And how do companies benefit from studies or observations such as these? Well, its rather simple actually. Leaks constitute energy that could otherwise be sold. Therefore, if a company can pinpoint a large loss of energy, they can then repair it, or at least minimize the leakage and in turn make more money. Basic science really.

International Energy Agency chief energy modeler Laura Cozzi stated that oil and gas firms can cut 40 to 50 percent of methane emissions with no net cost, the equivalent "of shutting two-thirds of the coal-fired generation in Asia." We've also seen another wave recently-investors putting pressure on companies to reduce their emissions, with some divesting in fossil fuels, and companies making more public decisions related to these concerns.

These satellites give them a powerful tool to monitor exactly what's going on, and to react accordingly. If they can identify a methane leak like California's 2015 Aliso Canyon gas leak, which released around 100,000 tons of methane before it was fixed, their potential is clear.

Pressure from both sides-public and private-will determine how globally effective these satellites will be. The technology seems strong enough to deliver new, actionable insights, and it's a promising way to fight emissions and hold corporations accountable. And if it's ever paired with carbon pricing, it becomes even more impactful.

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