UN launches satellite system to track methane emissions

Shipowners with LNG-powered tonnage will face greater scrutiny from out in space, it was revealed today at COP27, the international climate conference taking place in Egypt.

The United Nations has announced a new satellite-based system to detect emissions of methane and allow governments and businesses to respond.

Methane emissions do come from LNG-powered tonnage, and have proven to be a contentious source of debate within the shipping industry as alternate fuels are sought.

The Methane Alert and Response System (MARS) is a data-to-action platform set up as part of the UNEP International Methane Emissions Observatory (IMEO) strategy to get policy-relevant data into the right hands for emissions mitigation.

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, contributing at least a quarter of today’s climate warming. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world must cut methane emissions at least 30% by 2030 – the goal of the Global Methane Pledge – to keep the 1.5°C temperature limit within reach.

Methane’s 100-year global warming potential is 30 times stronger than the same amount of carbon dioxide (CO2), according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and its 20-year global warming potential is even more potent at 82.5 times stronger.

Developed in the framework of the Global Methane Pledge Energy Pathway – with initial funding from the European Commission, the US Government, Global Methane Hub, and the Bezos Earth Fund – MARS will allow UNEP to corroborate emissions reported by companies and characterise changes over time. MARS will be implemented with partners including the International Energy Agency, and the UNEP-hosted Climate and Clean Air Coalition.

“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.”

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

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

“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.

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

UNEP will then notify governments and companies about the emissions, either directly or through partners, so that the responsible entity can take appropriate action.  

In April last year the World Bank issued a report on decarbonising maritime transport in which it specifically recommended countries pull back from investing in further LNG bunkering infrastructure.

Taking a swipe at LNG as a fuel, the bank recommended that countries should avoid new public policy that supports LNG as a bunker fuel, reconsider existing policy support, and continue to regulate methane emissions.

“LNG is effectively liquefied methane, and methane is itself a highly potent GHG. Over 20-year and 100-year time horizons, methane is respectively 86 times and 36 times more potent a GHG than CO2. Therefore, any GHG emissions from unburnt methane released to the atmosphere – called methane leakage – can diminish or even entirely offset the theoretical GHG benefit of the use of LNG,” the bank warned.

A report from UCL Energy Institute published in September argued that as much as $850bn of tonnage is at risk of being stranded by 2030 if the shipping sector continues investing in LNG-capable ships as policies that incentivise shipping to decarbonise in line with the Paris Agreement would erode the value of more expensive LNG-capable vessels to be similar to that of lower cost conventional vessels.

Two months ago a coalition of top shipping names launched a project to identify, accelerate and advocate technology solutions for the maritime industry to measure and manage methane emissions activity.

Maran Gas Maritime, Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC), Carnival Corporation, Seaspan, Shell, Lloyd’s Register and Knutsen have come onboard the Methane Abatement in Maritime (MAM) Innovation Initiative, which aims to minimise the environmental impact of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in shipping, whilst aiding the transition to future fuel solutions.

Faced with repeated criticism about the gas’s green credentials, SEA-LNG, shipping’s lobby group in favour of the chilled gas as a transitional fuel, stated in a recent release: “Waiting is not an option – LNG as a marine fuel delivers immediate GHG benefits and a lower risk, lower cost, and has an incremental pathway to zero emissions through bioLNG in the near term and e-LNG in the mid to long term.”

Sam Chambers

Starting out with the Informa Group in 2000 in Hong Kong, Sam Chambers became editor of Maritime Asia magazine as well as East Asia Editor for the world’s oldest newspaper, Lloyd’s List. In 2005 he pursued a freelance career and wrote for a variety of titles including taking on the role of Asia Editor at Seatrade magazine and China correspondent for Supply Chain Asia. His work has also appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, The Sunday Times and The International Herald Tribune.
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