US capitol building

Founding a Federal Emissions Center

Three Tips for the New US Methane Monitoring and Measurement Interagency Working Group

The government is doubling down on climate change, and emissions transparency is in the spotlight.

The Biden administration has released a new set of actions for tackling super-polluting methane emissions. Their plan includes the formation of an interagency working group to coordinate greenhouse gas (GHG) measurement, monitoring, reporting, and verification (MMRV). From the White House’s statement, the Greenhouse Gas Monitoring and Measurement Interagency Working Group will identify and deploy the best tools to measure and verify emissions. It will also develop a comprehensive national GHG MMRV system that can be used by federal agencies; local, state, and Tribal governments; the private sector; and the public. Establishing a government center to decipher and disseminate data will be critical, since we cannot manage what we don’t measure.

These timely efforts will advance domestic and global methane reduction goals—such as the Global Methane Pledge, in which the United States (and over 100 other nations) committed to cut methane 30 percent by 2030.

But with emissions MMRV—a relatively new and rapidly evolving area—success rides on getting the design right. The new interagency working group must be constructed in a way that fully grasps the current state and complexities of existing tools and technologies. Here, we offer three suggestions for implementing a sophisticated systems approach that can achieve robust emissions visibility goals.

1. Clarify Goals

One common misperception is that an improved emissions MMRV system is the same as a trued up national inventory of greenhouse gas emissions. Recent coverage points out stark inaccuracies and knowledge gaps in national inventories, where countries have historically relied on a patchwork system of emissions self-reporting. The new working group should stand on the backs of cutting-edge efforts to improve emissions accounting at both national and sub-national levels.

One organization working on this is Climate TRACE, a coalition launched last year that uses remote sensing and advanced applications of AI and machine learning to offer a more accurate, up-to-date emissions inventory. TRACE filled important gaps that existed at the country and sector levels, revealing where UNFCCC reports under or over-counted emissions (or lacked any data whatsoever) to help leaders to enter COP26 with data that reflected current emissions trends to inform decision-making.

The working group should also set goals that extend beyond accurate inventories at the country, state, or sector level. It should consider exactly what government agencies, regulators, and stakeholders in the public and private sector might need to act with urgency to effectively pinpoint and mitigate emissions. For example, tens of federal and hundreds of state agencies have authority to manage, regulate, or otherwise consider GHGs in their purview. This will challenge the working group to orient its MMRV work in a way that supports existing multi-stakeholder needs. It must also spur the development of imaginative new data-to-action frameworks, such as innovative regulatory models that are being stood up in California based on satellite data from Carbon Mapper.

2. Take a “System of Systems” Approach

There is no one-size fits all tool or system for robust emissions MMRV. Although emerging satellite systems are changing the emissions monitoring game, they are team players that can best succeed in an ecosystem, alongside other measurement instruments (like other satellites, on-the-ground cameras and sensors, and airplanes), modeled data, and reported data. They all have a place in advancing our awareness of precisely where methane emissions are coming from, when they are occurring, and how we can best address them with tailored and targeted solutions.

New research published today in Science highlights the importance of multiple systems to derive powerful and actionable insights. An international team of scientists identified 1,200 oil and gas facilities emitting significant amounts of methane in sporadic bursts. Together, these emissions account for approximately 10 percent of all methane emissions from the oil and gas sector across the six major oil and gas producing countries—but are not completely accounted for in existing emissions estimates.

The team discovered these “ultra-emitters” by analyzing images produced daily by the European Space Agency satellite mission Sentinel-5P, combined with data from remote sensing aircraft that complement the satellite data with observations of higher spatial resolution and sensitivity.

“This work confirms what we have only glimpsed in previous studies of individual facilities and regions: that intermittent, large releases of methane from oil and gas operations are common globally and are mostly unreported,” said Riley Duren, Carbon Mapper CEO and co-author of the study. “In this critical decade for climate action, this underscores the urgent need for persistent global observing systems that can detect, pinpoint, and quantify methane emissions at scales relevant to decision-making.”

While there is a lot of well-placed excitement in satellites, the working group must consider how to discuss and apply them appropriately in the context of other data collection tools and with a keen understanding of their strengths and limitations.

Staying on top of emerging technologies is also important considering how quickly this space is evolving. What was considered best-in-class technology last year could potentially be obsolete by the time this working group holds its first meeting!

3. Prioritize Data Transparency, Access, and Quality

In many ways, this work IS rocket science. The tools and technologies to aggregate, clean, validate, and disseminate emissions data are often as complex as the systems built to collect them. There are currently hundreds of fragmented emissions data systems managed by a mix of government actors, academic institutions, NGOs, and private companies. The working group will need to consider the issue of fragmentation, in addition to barriers such as financial and educational access, misuse, and lack of trust.

Ideally, the new emissions MMRV system should be unified, transparent, and equitably accessible. As such, the working group should consider ways the US government can play a central role in establishing a data center to manage, organize, and validate multi-source data streams so that they can be used by the public and the numerous agencies tasked with carrying out emissions mitigation actions.

While the federal government cannot (nor should not) be the arbiter of a “single version of the truth” when it comes to emissions data, it can help to align data providers and users around common principles of data transparency, access, credibility, and quality. Ultimately, it’s the government that will stand up to the climate pledges it is making to safeguard the planet.