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World leaders pledge a crackdown on methane emissions. Here's how satellites can help.

Plumes of potent greenhouse gas methane leaking from a gas pipeline in Kazakhstan can be seen in this image captured by the European Sentinel 2 and Sentinel 5P satellites
Plumes of potent greenhouse gas methane leaking from a gas pipeline in Kazakhstan can be seen in this image captured by the European Sentinel 2 and Sentinel 5P satellites (Image credit: Copernicus)

Satellites will play a key role in helping the world slash emissions of the potent greenhouse gas methane in line with a global pledge introduced by the U.S. President Joe Biden and European Union leaders at the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow this week. 

The pledge, unveiled Tuesday (Nov. 2), has already been signed by more than 100 countries from all over the world. The leaders have focused on methane, the second most common greenhouse gas, as it performs extremely well in warming the Earth's atmosphere

While accounting for only about 16% of global greenhouse gas emissions, methane is 80 times more effective in warming the climate than the most common greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. The methane pledge challenges countries to cut emissions of the gas, which frequently leaks from oil and gas processing plants and landfills, by 30% by the end of this decade.

Methane is responsible for at least a quarter of the current global warming, the European Commission said in a statement, and getting its emissions in check could reduce the projected atmospheric warming by 0.28 degrees Celsius by 2050. 

Related: 10 devastating signs of climate change visible from space

The E.U. released its methane strategy on Oct. 14 and on Oct. 31 announced its support of the International Methane Emissions Observatory launched by the United Nations' Environment Program. At the heart of these reduction efforts is the need for better monitoring and identification of emission sources. 

In expert panels at the COP26 conference in Glasgow, Scotland, experts have discussed how satellites can help the world take better stock of its emissions and identify major polluters. Currently, countries inventory their own emissions based on the activity of their various polluting industries. The process, experts say, usually involves significant delays and provides little in terms of actionable insights. 

Beth Greenaway, the head of Earth observation and climate at the UK Space Agency, said in a briefing that there is a "huge untapped potential" in satellite technology when it comes to monitoring methane emissions. She added that the industry now has several missions in the pipeline that "will hopefully help tackle the problem in the next few years."

Currently, Canadian satellite company GHGSat operates three spacecraft fitted with sensors capable of detecting individual sources of methane such as landfills, mines and oil and gas processing plants. 

But other operators, government-funded and private alike, also plan to launch constellations designed to keep an eye on major methane leaks. 

On Tuesday, the E.U.'s Copernicus Earth observation program announced a new greenhouse gas monitoring constellation developed together with the European Space Agency. The constellation, part of a program called European CO2 Monitoring and Verification Support Capacity (CO2MVS), will be able to detect sources of  methane and carbon dioxide, the two most significant greenhouse gases. 

The U.S. Earth observation company Planet is also working on a new constellation that aims to help crack the methane problem. The constellation, dubbed Carbon Mapper, is developed in a partnership with other organizations and research institutes including NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA JPL), Arizona State University and the State of California as part of a new nonprofit organization.

Planet and NASA JPL are now building its first two prototype satellites, which are expected to launch in 2023. Once fully operational, the constellation will provide daily revisits of all points on Earth, Jeff Guido, mission director of the Carbon Mapper project at Planet, said in a briefing.

Guido said the new constellation will ultimately provide similar performance to Planet's optical imaging fleet SkySat, which images the entire surface of Earth in 20-inch (50 cm) resolution several times a day. 

"We expect that the [new] constellation will be of a similar size," Guido said. "The whole intent is to really increase the overall capacity of the system so that we can see everything we want to see, all high priority targets on a global scale and daily basis." 

MethaneSAT, a spinoff project of the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund, is expected to launch on SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket in October 2022.

The COP26 climate change conference that is taking place in the Scottish city of Glasgow from Nov. 1 to Nov. 12, seeks to inspire countries to strengthen their greenhouse gas reduction targets in order to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. This treaty, negotiated at COP21 in Paris in 2015 binds countries to strive to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

The current commitments, however, don's seem sufficient to meet this goal. According to the Emissions Gap Report 21, released by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) last week, the world is currently on track to see global temperatures jump by 2.7 degrees Celsius by the end of this century.

Humankind is already tasting the effects of the progressing climate change. Extreme weather events are now "a new normal", according to the World Meteorological Organization. 

The year 2021 witnessed a range of disastrous events affecting countries on all continents. Satellites have been observing ice sheets melting at unprecedented rates as polar regions warm up faster than other parts of the world. Tropical storms have battered areas unused to them, such as the coast of the desert-covered Arabian state of Oman. Record-breaking heat waves led to devastating wildfires, which devoured vast areas of forest and land, releasing huge amounts of the chief warming agent, carbon dioxide, into Earth's atmosphere. 

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Tereza Pultarova

Tereza is a London-based science and technology journalist, aspiring fiction writer and amateur gymnast. Originally from Prague, the Czech Republic, she spent the first seven years of her career working as a reporter, script-writer and presenter for various TV programmes of the Czech Public Service Television. She later took a career break to pursue further education and added a Master's in Science from the International Space University, France, to her Bachelor's in Journalism and Master's in Cultural Anthropology from Prague's Charles University. She worked as a reporter at the Engineering and Technology magazine, freelanced for a range of publications including Live Science, Space.com, Professional Engineering, Via Satellite and Space News and served as a maternity cover science editor at the European Space Agency.