About two hours into our drive around Utrecht, a city of 358,000 near the center of the Netherlands, the display providing a real-time readout of ambient methane levels begins to freak out. The Samsung tablet was consistently showing concentrations close to the atmosphere’s background level of around 2 parts per million. But suddenly, the chart’s scale expands in order to follow a sudden spike to 300 ppm. Behind the wheel, Hossein Maazallahi, a PhD candidate at Utrecht University, says the reason is clear: A natural gas pipeline has sprung a leak.
Maazallahi, 30, is part of MEMO2, a seven-country, public-private research project that’s training scientists to find methane leaks in fossil fuel production and municipal infrastructure across Europe. Methane is the primary component of natural gas, which is supplanting its dirtier cousins as a source of electricity.
But beyond more localized safety issues, the problem has a planetary component: it’s playing a significant role in global warming. Now, as the U.S. rejoins the climate fight being waged in Europe and elsewhere, with President Joe Biden’s plan to “supercharge” his nation’s efforts, finding new ways to rein in greenhouse gases will be even more of a priority. Tackling decrepit natural gas networks is likely to be high on the list.
Methane, also known as CH4, is the second-most abundant anthropogenic greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide. But it’s 25 times more effective at trapping heat. The higher potency combined with a shorter lifespan—maybe a dozen years rather than a century or more for CO2—has brought it to the forefront of climate mitigation strategies.
In the long run, say by 2100, we’ll need to significantly reduce CO2 emissions if we want to avoid agricultural catastrophe. But to hit goals set for 2030 by the Paris Agreement—namely emissions levels that keep warming below 2ºC—focusing on methane reduction makes better sense.
“Anything we can do to reduce methane emissions now helps buy us more time to address CO2 emissions in the future,” said Robert Jackson, professor of earth system science at Stanford University and director of the Global Carbon Project, a collaboration of hundreds of scientists worldwide seeking to make greenhouse gas data available to the public.