Well, *actually*

Methane emissions are higher than we thought


Hi there,

Today, we’ll dive deeper into an idea introduced in Sunday’s newsletter on how estimates of methane emissions across geographies and emissions sources are getting updated left and right in 2024. The trouble? They’re universally getting revised higher, often significantly so.

The newsletter in 50 words: Methane measurement and monitoring technologies are improving and commercializing. While ongoing, precise measurement is fantastic, it’s also revealing just how shoddy estimates of methane emissions globally were previously. Don’t shoot the messenger here, though (the tech in this case); we needed a bit of a reckoning.


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In the methane world, 3 notable things are happening so far this year:

The good: A cavalcade of methane measurement technologies, new and old, ranging from on-ground equipment to satellites in space, are improving our ability to measure methane emissions on an ongoing basis.

The bad: Estimates of methane emissions across emissions sources are being revised upwards. This also holds across geographies from the U.S. to Germany and the entire globe. 

The ugly: The world is warming faster than many scientists predicted. While it’s hard to know why, I’d posit that (much) higher than previously estimated methane emissions are a culprit.

The good

The methane measurement world is having a good year. Like carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gasses, methane isn’t visible to the naked eye. Perhaps if it were visible, like plastic piling up on a beach, it would bother us more viscerally. Perhaps people would have gotten more concerned about greenhouse gasses as early as the 70s, when environmentalism first really came to the fore.

It’s not like being able to ‘see’ methane is some novel technical feat. The thermal cameras you can use to spot a methane plume emanating from an oil well or natural gas pipeline have been around for a while (though they can get pricey). Things is, until this century, few people (or companies) really cared. Until recently, methane emissions, like all other greenhouse gas emissions, were simply a negative externality few people thought that critically about.

Eyes on the prize: A methane sensor installed monitors flare condition. (Shutterstock)

Now, for a variety of reasons, there’s a seachange happening in methane measurement, both from a capital allocation perspective and with respect to the tech itself. For one, whereas methane emissions, for instance, from oil and gas operations, have traditionally been checked or measured once a month or even once a year, there’s now an onus to move towards ongoing, real-time, 24/7 measurement. Some of that is driven by policy, like the EPA’s new methane fees. But it’s also driven by tech ranging from on-the-ground systems to space.

There is, for instance, the EDF’s new MethaneSAT methane measurement and monitoring satellite, which launched last month and cost about $88M. And there are also systems like the ones LongPath Technologies is building in the Permian Basin, replete with $189M in conditional loan funding from the DOE’s Loan Program Office. LongPath’s technology uses lasers that emit light at specific wavelengths that methane absorbs. At the end of its path, the laser beam hits a retroreflector, which sends the light back to its origin, where it is analyzed to determine how much of the laser light at specific wavelengths has been absorbed by methane between the source and the reflector.

And there’s a whole host of other technologies ranging from unmanned aerial vehicles to other types of cameras (e.g., optical gas imaging ones) and more, all of which can, at minimum, identify methane emissions. Many of these technologies differ in their ability to actually measure, which is to say, quantify, how much methane is leaking or emitted in one location, as well as what concentrations of methane they can pick up. MethaneSAT can ‘see’ as little as three parts per billion of methane (there are roughly 2,000 parts per billion of methane in Earth’s atmosphere now).

Interestingly, there are folks who think measurement and monitoring isn’t that important. They say we know the emissions are a problem and we know how to reduce them, so why don’t we just get to work on that. I understand the sentiment, but especially as it pertains to supporting any semblance of policy, and, as we’ll discuss in a bit, as it pertains to informing climate science, I think better and more data is one of the more valuable things imaginable.

If nothing else, as technology improves and gets deployed, it’s helping us understand the scope of the methane emissions problem. Because, previously, most emissions estimates were, well, estimates. And they were shitty ones, at that. Stated more plainly, the problem is bigger than we thought.

The bad

I wouldn’t say what follows is a problem. It’s more of a long overdue reckoning. As methane measurement and monitoring improves, it’s been striking just how wrong past estimates of methane emissions, including ones reported to international and government bodies, were. 

In some cases, the (mis)estimations were brazen. For instance, German coal mine methane emissions measurements that it reported to the UN are, to this day, based on a 1989 study by a coal mining company. So, it shouldn’t be too surprising that a recent analysis by Ember found German coal mines actually emit 184x (!) more methane than what the country has dutifully been reporting.

A giant bucket wheel operating in a coal mine in Germany. Since Germany has phased down natural gas imports from Germany, it has expanded lignite coal mines, which could continue to emit methane into the atmosphere for decades (Shutterstock)

Plenty of other studies so far this year show methane emissions from other sectors are higher than previously thought (or certainly than reported).

For additional context, globally, methane emissions from oil and gas were close to record highs in 2023 despite pledges to reduce them. The same is likely true across methane emissions sources. While folks typically think of methane emissions in the context of oil and gas, as noted so far today, things like landfills and coal mines are also significant contributors.

Suffice it to say, global methane emissions aren’t just at or close to record highs. In many cases, they’re likely even higher than we think they are.

The ugly

This brings me to another point. One of the most disconcerting things to me in climate right now is the fact that preeminent climate scientists are puzzled by just how quickly the world has warmed of late.

I think many folks – myself five years ago included – assume climate scientists have the whole global warming thing pretty well figured out and modeled. The truth is they don’t. That’s not to say they’re not doing their job well. It’s just to say their job is one of the hardest ones in the world.

The IPCC, for instance, proposed 1,311 different warming scenarios and potential trajectories in 2005. Less than 10% remain plausible today. Thankfully, of those that do, many are on the milder side in terms of future warming. None of this is to say the IPCC is incompetent. It’s to hit home the fact that modeling the Earth’s climate is incredibly complicated and challenging. And if you don’t have an accurate handle on something like, say, numbers for actual global methane emissions, the job gets even harder.

In 2024, the world is warming faster than many scientists had modeled and projected. A lot of this may be attributable to El Niño weather dynamics and could reverse somewhat when El Niño lets up. Still, things like exceedingly hot ocean temperatures are just one thing puzzling scientists.

I’m one of the least knowledgeable folks in the proverbial climate science room. But, considering how significant methane emissions are to driving near-term warming, and considering how little relative attention they get, I’d pose the question: Might higher-than-expected and estimated methane emissions be a part of the story here? Hopefully, someone smarter out there can either pick that thread up or disabuse me of the notion as appropriate.

The net-net

Moving from estimates to actuals – in this case, in measuring global methane emissions – is ultimately a good thing. It offers us a higher fidelity understanding of who's responsible for what emissions, where emissions are concentrated, what's contributing to global warming, and where, as in oil and gas, there are more accessible opportunities to reduce emissions.

That said, more accurate information doesn’t always ‘feel’ good. Sometimes, things are worse than we thought, whether measured by methane emissions themselves, the dollar amount of economic opportunity wasted those emissions represent, or global warming.

Don't be disheartened, though. Sometimes, often really, progress follows a 'J curve' path. First you gotta get real and ingest some less-than-great information. And then you get on with the work.


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