1,000 methane leaks could trigger climate tipping points

Satellite data analyzed by the Kayrros company identified 1,005 super-emitting events in 2022

by Lorenzo Ciotti
1,000 methane leaks could trigger climate tipping points

According to what was reported by The Guardian, more than 1,000 super-emitting sites, mainly from oil and gas facilities, have spewed a large amount of gas into the air. Satellite data analyzed by the Kayrros company identified 1,005 super-emitting events in 2022, including 559 from oil and gas fields, 105 from coal mines and 340 from waste sites, such as landfills.

Events can last from a few hours to several months. Turkmenistan had the most super broadcast events: 184.The colossal losses could be the result of aging Soviet-era equipment, experts said, or attempts to bypass the control over flaring, when vented gas is ignited to form less harmful CO2 but produces easily visible flames.

The United States has had 154 super-emitting events from fossil fuel sites. The largest was in March of last year near San Antonio Texas releasing 147 tons per hour, while the second largest was at a fracking field in rural Pennsylvania and lasted 13 days.

Russia had 120 superemission events in 2022. Other nations in the top 15 include Algeria, China, Saudi Arabia, Australia, Iran and Iraq. The second largest fossil fuel leak of the year occurred in Iraq, apparently from an oil refinery near Basra.

Most of Australia's super-emitting losses came from coal mines in Queensland's Bowen Basin. Methane emissions now cause 25% of global warming and there has been a frightening spike since 2007, according to scientists. This acceleration could be the biggest threat to keeping global warming below 1.5°C.

The two new datasets identify the sites most critical to preventing methane disasters, because addressing leaks from fossil fuel sites is the fastest and cheapest way to drastically reduce methane emissions. A 45% cut in emissions by 2030, which the United Nations says is possible, would avoid a 0.3°C rise in temperature.

Methane emissions therefore represent both a serious threat to humanity, but also a golden opportunity to act decisively on the climate crisis. Future methane emissions from fossil fuel sites are also predicted to be huge, threatening the entire global carbon budget ceiling needed to keep warming below 1.5°C.

More than half of these fields are already in production, including the three largest methane bombs, all in North America. In 2021, the latest year for which complete data is available, methane reached 1,908 parts per billion, 2.6 times more than before human activity started transforming the atmosphere.

Its role in global warming is often overlooked, but human-caused methane emissions are responsible for about a third of the increase in global temperatures over the past century. Today, the impact remains large, with methane in the atmosphere responsible for around 25% of the heat trapped by all greenhouse gases.

About 40% of human-caused methane emissions come from leaks from fossil fuel exploration, production and transportation. These have increased by almost 50% between 2000 and 2019. Another 40% comes from agriculture, dominated by livestock burp, and 20% from rotting landfills. All are expected to rise.