A European Space Commission satellite has identified a massive methane leak in Russia, demonstrating the fundamental shift that data transparency is bringing to climate politics.
“The satellite revelations could further complicate a critical United Nations climate summit in Scotland in November, known as COP26, where world leaders will face pressure to slash greenhouse gas emissions,” writes The Washington Post.
Copernicus Sentinel-5P orbits the Earth 14 times a day at an altitude of 835 kilometres. On June 4, it sensed a methane leak in Tatarstan releasing 395 tonnes of the climate-busting gas per hour. Russian state fossil Gazprom rushed to repair the leak, which it acknowledged two weeks later without giving more specific information. Then this October, Gazprom repair work led to another massive methane release, and it was once again detected by a satellite.
Those events may have gone unnoticed in the past, and could have been misrepresented by countries and companies. But now, the sleuthing satellites leave nowhere to hide.
“Satellites can provide real-time evidence of massive, unreported methane leaks—and who is responsible for them,” writes the Post. “That information can help officials hold the polluting companies accountable or expose governments that hide or ignore dangerous emissions that are warming the world.”
Russia is the world’s second biggest natural gas producer, and COP 26 watchers say a prominent issue for negotiators is persuading President Vladimir Putin to plug leaking pipelines and rein in plans to increase natural gas exports. Putin recently announced he will not be attending COP 26 in person.
In discussions with U.S. chief climate negotiator John Kerry, Russian Federation climate envoy Ruslan Edelgeriyev said new bylaws will make the country’s methane requirements stricter. The two nations have agreed to cooperate on a number of climate issues, including methane limits and satellite emissions monitoring.
“We are not trying to hide anything. We do realize that problems exist, and we are trying to find solutions,” Edelgeriyev said, conceding that “at the moment we do not have a complete picture of emissions.”
But despite Edelgeriyev’s assurances, and Putin’s claims to take climate change seriously, a Post analysis found that Russia’s reported emissions “don’t add up.” The paper’s misgivings are confirmed by climate research, with atmospheric models reported in one study showing emissions twice as high as the country reports.
The Post is not the only investigator on the case. Climate TRACE, a new platform for independent emissions reporting launched in September, uses satellite observations, remote sensing, and advanced analytics to measure emissions in the fossil fuel sector. So far, information gathered through TRACE has revealed that the collective emissions of the world’s top countries may be double the amount reported to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Modelling by the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) for TRACE sheds light on the global threat posed by Russia’s climate emissions.
“It turns out that Russia has one of the largest climate footprints of any country globally in the methane and CO2 intensity of its oil and gas production,” reports RMI.
This transparency of emissions data can help guide action in climate negotiations. Information from TRACE suggest that a number-one target for cutting emissions is to address ultra-emitters, “characterized by sporadic releases of huge amounts of methane from aging infrastructure, maintenance operations, and equipment failures that are not accounted for in current emissions inventories,” writes RMI.
By allowing countries to notice and swiftly address ultra-emitters, satellites like Copernicus Sentinel-5P can help them achieve immediate reductions. But the data also offers opportunities to hold oil and gas investors accountable for their emissions.
“As we head into COP 26, with climate intelligence in hand, governments, investors, courts, activists, and consumers will be empowered to activate climate-aligned markets,” says RMI.