Eyes in the sky — new satellites identify greenhouse emissions with incredible accuracy

As citizens, governments, and investors alike look for ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, help looks to be coming from a series of new satellites that aim to identify those emissions as they occur.

This “new wave” is detailed in a new report from Bloomberg, which says “more than a dozen” governments and companies will launch satellites which measure the concentration of greenhouse gases, including methane. These satellites will be able to “pinpoint producers of greenhouse gases, right down to an individual leak at an oil rig.”

Countries, corporations, and individual facilities can all be tracked by these space-bound spies — some of which are in orbit already. Satellites are going up from both public and private entities to track greenhouse gas emissions.

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 told Bloomberg,

“Space-based technologies are allowing us for the first time to quickly and cheaply measure greenhouse gases. Oftentimes 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/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.

Money Motivates

The broad interest in these satellites comes not just from environmental concerns, but for financial reasons, as one might suspect. As Bloomberg writes, “Leaks constitute energy that could otherwise be sold.”

International Energy Agency chief energy modeler Laura Cozzi told Bloomberg that oil and gas firms can cut 40-50% 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.

Companies have their own reasons for monitoring methane leaks, and while that’s a positive, we’re also interested in how governments may use these satellites to police companies.

Pressure from both sides, public and private, will determine how effective these satellites will be overall. The tech 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.