(Bloomberg) – One of the countries most vulnerable to climate change has also proved to be the largest contributor to methane, a greenhouse gas about 80 times more potent in its first two decades in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
The 12 highest rates of methane emissions detected this year by Kayrros SAS occurred in Bangladesh, according to the Paris-based company, one of several that specialize in analyzing satellite observations to locate leaks. “It has the strongest sustained emissions we’ve seen so far, where we can’t clearly identify the source,” said Stephane Germain, president of GHGSat Inc, who also took the plumes.
Bluefield Technologies Inc., which analyzed data from the European Space Agency to identify a large methane plume in Florida in May, also detected concentrations in Bangladesh. “Our analysis shows that Bangladesh has some of the largest methane emissions in the world that can be detected by satellites,” said Yotam Ariel, the company’s founder.
Photo taken on 3/9/2019
Scientists are just beginning to identify the biggest sources of methane. Space observations can be seasonal due to cloud cover, precipitation and varying light intensity. Satellites may also find it difficult to track offshore emissions and releases at higher latitudes, such as the Arctic, where Russia has extensive oil and gas operations. Due to these limitations, the existing data is not yet globally comprehensive.
But emissions in Bangladesh are drawing attention. Its low altitude and high population density make it particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events and rising oceans. The country chairs the Climate Vulnerability Forum, whose 48 members represent 1.2 billion people most at risk from climate change.
“We are aware of the problems,” Bangladesh’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Shahab Uddin, said in an interview. Most of the methane probably came from rice paddies, he said. When farmers flood their fields, bacteria from the flooded soil can produce large amounts of the gas. “The other source is landfill gas,” said Uddin, released when the garbage breaks. “We are working to take mitigation measures.”
Domesticated livestock, oil and gas industry leaks, landfills and coal mining are just a few of the human activities that result in methane emissions, according to the Global Methane Initiative. At least a quarter of today’s global warming is caused by anthropogenic methane emissions, estimates the Environmental Defense Fund.
Bangladesh’s methane concentrations are likely to originate from a combination of sources, including rice paddies, landfills, leaking natural gas pipelines and coal stocks, according to Kayrros. The company uses data from ESA’s Sentinel-5P and Sentinel-2 satellites. He performed a dispersion simulation that takes into account atmospheric conditions, such as the wind, which can move plumes of methane away from its source.
“It is a great example of how better monitoring and data analysis can identify sources of emissions and open opportunities to deal with greenhouse gas emissions and, in other cases, emissions of air pollutants,” said Lauri Myllyvirta , chief analyst at the Center for Research on Energy and clean air.
Methane is a particular concern for those working to slow the pace of climate change. The gas is odorless and colorless, making leaks extremely difficult to detect. Interrupting accidental emissions from the energy infrastructure is one of the most difficult things to achieve, because companies can benefit from cleaning operations. They are losing products that could have been sold and risking reputation damage as investors like BlackRock Inc. demand higher standards.
“The concentrations of methane that we see in Bangladesh are a signal and deserve further study,” said Steven Hamburg, chief scientist at EDF, who plans to launch his own satellite to track methane emissions next year. “More work will be needed to make reliable quantitative estimates of emissions and determine sources.”
The ability to attribute leaks to individual operators is getting closer and closer as more satellites are launched, offering greater accuracy and more frequent coverage. In February, GHGSat reported that it tracked methane leaks in at least eight natural gas pipelines and rockets extinguished in Central Turkmenistan, which released up to 10,000 kilograms per hour.
EDF’s PermianMap project, which combines satellite data and other terrestrial observations to assign and aggregate emissions per operator in one of the most active fossil fuel basins in the world, is a sign of transparency to come. “The ability to assign methane emissions to an asset level is here now,” said Germain of GHGSat. “The challenge is to increase the frequency of observations with more satellites.”