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Illustration: Marcelle Louw for GIJN


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Climate Change Reporting Guide: Methane — Interrogating the Data

There is wide agreement among scientists that methane emissions are routinely undercounted or overlooked. This makes measurement itself an important subject for reporting. Having accurate emission figures is critical to policy discussions on where and how to achieve reductions.

But despite the debate over the precise numbers, climate scientists broadly agree on one critical point: methane emissions are growing quickly. According to a preliminary analysis of satellite data by the European Union, atmospheric methane concentrations “continued to rise in 2021.” Likewise, in January 2022, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published data confirming that global atmospheric methane as of September 2021 (the latest available month) reached 1,900.5 parts per billion (ppb), the highest level in human history.

Still, countries can and do use whatever methodologies they like to report emissions. For most places the official figures are too low, as described in the 2021 UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report, Global Methane Assessment: Benefits and Costs of Mitigating Methane Emissions. Similar problems exist with corporate data, if you can find it. Companies now are under increased pressure to more precisely measure emissions and reveal the information.

Illustration: Marcelle Louw for GIJN

This section of GIJN’s Investigating Methane Guide will cover:

  • Where to find international data on methane emissions.
  • Where to find national data.
  • Why emissions figures are low.
  • What to question about methane data.

Data Sources

Global Research

There are several primary sources of information on methane emissions.

Overall methane missions are tracked and published by the International Energy Agency (IEA), a Paris-based intergovernmental organization.

“Methane emissions are the second largest cause of global warming,” notes the report, Methane Tracker 2021, issued in January of 2021. The IEA found that oil and gas operations worldwide emitted more than 70 million tons of methane into the atmosphere in 2020, an amount equivalent to the energy-related carbon dioxide emissions from the European Union (EU).

The IEA report says that it is technically possible to eliminate roughly three quarters of methane emissions from global oil and gas operations. “A significant share [60%] of these could be avoided at no net cost, as the cost of the abatement measure is less than the market value of the additional gas that is captured,” the report states.

Country-by-country data is provided in the IEA’s Methane Tracker Database, which provides information on emissions and estimates of “abatement potential.” Algeria, for example, had estimated total emissions of 2,750 kt (kilotons) in 2020, 3.6% of global emissions. Further breakdowns are available on the country pages.

Algeria - Global Methane Tracker database

IEA’s Methane Tracker Database provides detailed estimates of every country’s emissions information (shown here: Algeria). Image: Screenshot

The authors of the IEA Methane Tracker were quite frank about the limitations of the underlying information from national sources, on which they based their report.

“Emissions levels and abatement potentials are based on sparse and sometimes conflicting data, and there is a wide divergence in estimated emissions at the global, regional and country levels,” begins the IEA’s take on Improving Methane Data. Other IEA reports include the annual World Energy Outlook (see the 2020 version).

Emissions of methane from fossil fuel operations are 70% higher than national governments are reporting, according to the 2022 edition of the Global Methane Tracker released Feb. 23, 2022, by the IEA.

Other Scientific and Academic Sources

The EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service offers a wealth of information. NOAA runs the Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network.

Another source for methane emissions information is the Global Methane Budget, published every two to three years, most recently in July 2020, by the Global Carbon Atlas.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization in 2021 issued a brief about Emissions from Agriculture and Forest Land summarizing trends from 1990 to 2019 drawn from FAO’s database.

There is extensive academic work on methane, as internet searches will show, with new studies emerging frequently. Some of these are even comprehensible to a nonscientist. For examples, check out articles published in Earth System Science Data, Climatic Change, Reviews of Geophysics, National Science Review, and Environmental Research Letters. The Key to Reducing Methane Emissions? Actual Measurement, by US professors Mark Agerton and Ben Gilbert, dives into the problems with measurement systems used in regulations and discusses alternatives.

National Government Data Sources

National methane emissions data gets submitted to UN Climate Change officials by national governments, pursuant to the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC). The developed economies, so-called Annex 1 countries, submit annual reports called National Inventory Reports (NIRs), about their greenhouse gas emissions. (See National Inventory Submissions 2021 on the UNFCCC site.)

Developing countries, known as non-Annex 1 parties, submit their emissions data as part of their Biennial Update Reports (BURs). But this self-reporting system has its own drawbacks. For instance, Algeria, used as an example earlier, has not submitted a recent report. To view a recent BUR, check out this submission by Azerbaijan.

Estimates vs. Reality

Methodology Problems

One critical weakness in methane emissions measurement occurs because each country is free to use different methodologies to make its estimates. This results in questionable data and complicates efforts at comparative measurement, making these discrepancies ripe for reporters to investigate.

For example, governments are not mandated to follow the 2019 guidelines from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for preparing National Greenhouse Gas Inventories. The Coalition on Materials Emissions Transparency (COMET), was subsequently created in 2020 to address this problem.

To research historical methane emissions levels, journalists can use Climate Watch, which has archival data from several sources, but be sure to read the caveats in the FAQ section. The US NGO also keeps track of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) reports, submitted by signatories to the Paris Agreement every five years, to outline and communicate their climate actions and goals. (More on this in the Tracking Countries section below.)

Another fundamental problem with methane emissions data collected by governments is that it is based on estimates and equations, not actual measurements.

This “desktop” method starts with inventories of potential sources, such as the number of wells, compressor stations, and valves; the number of livestock (cows); and the area of rice fields. Once the various sources have been tallied, each source is multiplied by its estimated average emissions rate, what’s known as “emission factor.”

There are two potential flaws with the resulting estimates, says Jonathan Banks, international director for Super Pollutants for the environmental group Clean Air Task Force. First, the given number of emission sources is often inaccurate. Second, the multiplying factors are based on engineering estimates, some of which are decades old.

Moreover, the method doesn’t account for accidents, spills, or other large emission events in the oil and gas sector. One recent study in the journal Nature found that “unintentional emissions from liquid storage tanks and other equipment leaks” in the United States are the largest contributors to divergence from official estimates.

Undercounting of Emissions

Methane emissions are significantly undercounted across the globe — making this a key area to explore for investigative reporters.

For instance, many national inventories significantly underestimate their methane emissions, according to the 2021 UNEP report referenced above. This conclusion is also buttressed by academic research, like this 2020 study in Nature, which concluded methane emissions from fossil fuel sources are 25%-40% higher than previously predicted.

The gap between the reality and the reporting of methane emissions was also confirmed in a recent Washington Post investigative series.

“Data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) lists Russia as the world’s top oil and gas methane emitter, but that’s not what Russia reports to the United Nations. Its official numbers fall millions of tons shy of what independent scientific analyses show,” the Post project found, using satellite data. “Many oil and gas producers in the Persian Gulf region, such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, also report very small levels of oil and gas methane emission that don’t line up with other scientific datasets.”

WaPo Satellite Investigation into Russian Methane Leak

Image: Screenshot (The Washington Post)

Likewise, a 2020 report by the Environmental Defense Fund, Hitting the Mark: Improving the Credibility of Industry Methane Data, found wide divergence between official government numbers and estimates by experts from more than a dozen research institutions. “Methane emissions associated with US oil and gas production are 60% higher than [US Environmental Protection Agency] estimates, which are derived from calculations,” the report concluded.

For further reading and resources on methane emissions measurements and reporting issues:

Reporters could look into the methodology being used by countries to estimate their emissions. They also could ask for the reasons behind countries’ methodological choices, possibly related to cost or capacity.

Chapter Two describes potential sources of satellite and infrared camera information about particular emissions.

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