Satellites Put The World’s Biggest Methane Emitters On The Map For Public Scrutiny

Now the companies and countries responsible for a powerful greenhouse gas won’t be able to hide from view. Satellites Put The World’s Biggest Methane Emitters On The Map For Public Scrutiny

Orange and yellow pixels flash over American drilling heartlands around the Gulf Coast, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania. Dark red stretches across Middle East and China, while disturbing dots of color pop up around Greenland’s coast.

This is the dangerous world of atmospheric methane emissions, one of the most powerful drivers of global warning—and it’s visible to the public for the first time.

GHGSat Inc. released a new methane map on Wednesday that uses data from the company’s two satellites, which were launched earlier this year and can detect methane emitted by oil and gas wells, coal mines, power plants, farms and factories.

It’s part of a wave of climate surveillance that will make it possible to hold countries and companies accountable for meeting targets to reduce and eventually eliminate planet-warming pollution.

“We’ve got a situation where for more than the last decade there’s been a significant and unexplained upward tick in global methane atmospheric concentrations,” said Jonathan Elkind, a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.

In a paper published last week, Elkind outlined the way satellite-driven transparency will better allow investors to identify which companies aren’t backing their goals with action.

The time-lapse map published by GHGSat covers a six-month stretch through October 10—less than two weeks ago—based on weekly images captured from space. Average methane emissions are represented in green, at about 1,800 parts per billion, with yellow above average and dark red at the high end of the scale.

The early readings cover the lockdowns that aimed to slow the Covid-19 pandemic, which devastated demand for oil and sent methane emissions lower. Intensification on the map shows how quickly methane can build during the hot summer months in the Northern Hemisphere, with orange and red pixels along the Arctic coast and around Beijing.

The map identifies concentration of methane across the troposhere, where naturally occurring emissions such as from wetlands mingle with those caused by human activity. Mountains can be seen trapping methane, such as in Southern California near the Sierra Nevada range or in South Asia below the Himalayas.

Methane is more than 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, although its greenhouse impact fades much faster.

GHGSat claims its satellite offers the highest-resolution methane data publicly available, and the it sells access to companies ranging from Royal Dutch Shell Plc to landfill operators. In the next year, GHGSat plans to release additional data that will also quantify emissions, said Stephane Germain, president of the Montreal-based firm.

That will make it clear how much methane is released by drilling in the U.S. Permian Basin every week, for example. The company is also developing a carbon dioxide-monitoring satellite that may be launched into orbit in 2022.

Satellite data will ultimately transform the way nations are held accountable for voluntary commitments under the Paris Agreement, which calls for limiting global average temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Granular data that can pinpoint emissions down to specific facilities will also help track corporate emissions. “Very soon nobody is going to be able to hide from methane leakage,” former BP Plc Chief Executive Officer Bob Dudley predicted in 2018.

Other organizations are also working to root out unknown emissions leaks. The Environmental Defense Fund, Harvard University and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory are developing MethaneSat, a project to measure human-made emissions by satellite and supply that data to the public.

NASA is designing a stationary satellite called GeoCarb to collect 10 million daily observations of the concentrations of carbon gases across the Americas.

New insights into methane emitters have already prompted regulatory action. Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency launched an investigation into Florida Gas Transmission Pipeline for a possible Clean Air Act violation after Bluefield Technologies Inc. discovered a mystery leak using satellite imagery, and Bloomberg News identified the likely source.

Last year, GHGSat found a giant methane plume in Central Asia oilfield; getting it stopped was the equivalent of taking 1 million cars off the road.

Some trends are already visible in the new GHGSat map. China appears to have above-average background readings for natural reasons, Germain said, but methane emissions from rice paddies and coal mines may also contribute to the red zones. Germain noted that China is home to 10,000 of the world’s 12,000 coal mines.

As expected, areas with high levels of oil and gas drilling activity—from West Texas and New Mexico to the Caspian Sea and parts of the Persian Gulf—show higher levels of methane, likely caused by leaks and flaring. But there are also high methane levels in parts of northern Canada and Siberia with little to no industrial activity.

It’s also unclear what’s causing red zones to emerge across the Sahara desert, Germain said, and it’s possible that increasing concentrations in Saudi Arabia may partly be the result of winds carrying methane from other regions, not just the local production of fossil fuel.

“If you are a company and you see more red in the areas that you operate in, you should care,” said Germain. “A very small number of sites are responsible for the vast majority of man-made emissions globally. If you can find those industrial emissions, you can have a significant impact.”

Investors Gauge Future Climate Risks With Satellite Imaging

Asset managers are analyzing pictures and data taken from outer space to predict the physical impacts of global warming.

The world was watching end-of-days scenes: ­Firefighters in yellow jackets, blurry against a copper sky, battled to push back walls of flames. Veterinarians tended to badly burned koalas and kangaroos. Dazed survivors picked through the ruins of their torched houses.

Chris Kaminker was one of the many remote onlookers unnerved by the images of Australia’s most recent bushfires. In London, where he leads sustainable investment research and strategy at $65 billion Lombard Odier Investment Managers, Kaminker couldn’t escape the thought that he’d seen this apocalyptic vision before.

Indeed he had—a 2008 report commissioned by the Australian government had predicted that by 2020 climate change would cause the country’s fire seasons to start earlier, end later, and be more intense.

“The physical reality leaping off of the pages of scientists’ reports that warned us decades ago was simply shocking to behold,” says Kaminker, a 37-year-old dual U.S.-French citizen. “What struck home was the realization that the scientists really did get this right, sadly.”

So why hadn’t financiers like Kaminker been better prepared for the extent of the damage to life and assets? Something must have been missing in the data. This is where Kaminker believed he could add some value.

An alum of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Société Générale SA, Kaminker ran sustainable finance research at SEB, the Swedish bank that structured the first green bond, before joining the asset management arm of Swiss private bank Lombard Odier last year.

In a newly created role, he was responsible for developing ways to analyze how the warming planet—and increasing pressure to cut carbon emissions—will affect companies. The idea was, of course, to give the firm’s funds a unique investment advantage.

Kaminker made two big moves. First, he dedicated himself to building expertise in a field known as physical risk, which involves understanding and predicting the potential damage to assets and infrastructure from a changing climate and extreme events.

The Central Banks and Supervisors Network for Greening the Financial System, an international group of institutions aiming to address global warming, said in June that as much as 25% of the world’s gross domestic product could be wiped out by losses from physical damage alone by 2100 if no further action is taken on climate change.

Second, he recruited Laura García Vélez from the World Wildlife Fund conservation group as a geospatial analyst, tasked with studying satellite images, geographic information system data, and historical cartographic records.

Vélez, 31, first learned about geospatial techniques while working for a utility in her hometown of Medellín, Colombia, where she assessed how suitable locations were for hydropower plants. Growing up in a country that’s both lush in rainforests and full of minerals and energy resources made Vélez see climate change as more than a scientific phenomenon or an investment strategy.

“What tends to happen is that the places that have more biodiversity and are more important in terms of their ecosystems are also places which are very rich in natural resources. So it’s really difficult to just put in place those trade-offs if a country is developing and its economy depends substantially on commodities,” she says.

At WWF, Vélez was a key contributor to a joint report with Investec Asset Management (now called Ninety One) that explained how geospatial data and satellite imagery could detect warning signs for a sovereign debt portfolio by spotting potential environmental hazards and countries’ progress in managing them. In July, Ninety One, which manages £118 billion ($153 billion) in assets, launched a country risk index with WWF that builds on that research.

Vélez joined Kaminker in January, and they began studying the Australian fires. They were frustrated with the widely used climate models produced by the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project, or CMIP, which receives contributions from at least a thousand researchers and is cited in United Nations reports.

They found the CMIP models failed to show that huge fires would ravage New South Wales, the southeastern state that’s home to Sydney, with such ferocity. They became convinced that geospatial analysis could do more than help calculate the damage from extreme events—it could help forecast where these calamities might occur.

New Space Race

It’s been almost 75 years since the first photo of Earth was taken from space. Insurers have used satellite data since the 1990s to model flood and hurricane risks; commodity traders and some hedge funds have used the images to track traffic at shopping malls and monitor usage of oil storage facilities.

The cost of launching a payload into space has fallen ­significantly—by a factor of 20 since the 2000s, according to one estimate—and now many more satellites are in orbit, pinging back an ever-larger volume of images. Virtually every building and tree on the planet is under daily surveillance. Computing breakthroughs, most notably developments in artificial intelligence, have made the tools to interpret and analyze the data much more readily available.

And we’re just at the start of this new space race for financial data, says Rowan Douglas, head of Willis Towers Watson’s Climate and Resilience Hub. Douglas predicts that within five years spatial techniques will be deeply embedded in financial and risk analysis across the industry.

But there are limitations. The cost of purchasing data from satellite providers remains high, according to Kaminker. And, while satellite imagery of any point on the planet is available, there isn’t yet any corresponding or interlinked database showing who owns each piece of property. Investors may struggle to gain a full picture of a company’s impact on the environment or vice versa.

There are projects under way to remove some of these roadblocks. For instance, the U.K.-based Spatial Finance Initiative is working to make geospatial capabilities widely available for financial decision-making. It plans to introduce a database of the location and ownership of global cement and steel facilities by the end of 2020, says Ben Caldecott, a founder of the initiative and founding director of Oxford’s sustainable finance program.

Kaminker and Vélez developed an alternative to the CMIP models by compiling data on local temperature, rainfall, wind speeds, and humidity from meteorological agencies, adding their own analysis of images from satellites.

After doing backtest trials, Kaminker and Vélez determined that the images could have predicted, with some degree of certainty, the location and severity of the Australian fires a month before they occurred.

So Lombard Odier Investment Managers began making greater use of satellite data and Earth observation, and physical risk analysis has become one of its key inputs in investment decisions.

Kaminker declined to provide details on the specifics of its current portfolio, but he said physical risk and geospatial data were material factors in decisions related to California utility PG&E, U.S. timberland company Weyerhaeuser, Brazilian iron ore giant Vale, and Brazil’s JBS, the world’s biggest meat company.

Seeking An Edge

Once seen as a peripheral topic for money managers, climate change has become a material element in investment decisions. BlackRock Inc.’s Chief Executive Officer Larry Fink said in his annual letter to CEOs in January that “climate change has become a defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects” and would bring about a “fundamental reshaping of finance.”

For most fund managers this manifests as a focus on incorporating environmental, social, and governance factors in their investment decisions—buying and selling stocks based on how well they score on factors such as carbon emissions.

Now firms such as Lombard Odier are seeking an edge with a view from space. Instead of waiting for a company’s annual sustainability report, they’re using satellite images to get a real-time picture of its emissions. In this way they’re measuring and managing risks, but also arming themselves with more accurate data to push companies and governments for change.

In March, Lombard Odier created a climate transition fund. The strategy, with more than $500 million under management, invests in companies that will profit from the move to a lower-­carbon world—either by creating solutions to curb greenhouse gases or making aggressive efforts to cut their own emissions.

The fund also includes companies building infrastructure for a warmer planet or those that monitor physical and financial risks related to climate damage. Its biggest holdings include engine maker Cummins, grocer Kroger, sports apparel manufacturer Nike, and carmaker Volkswagen, according to a Lombard Odier spokesman. The fund returned 13% in the three months to mid-October.

Meanwhile, Kaminker and his 10-person team are working on a host of additional tools to analyze the exposure and resilience of companies to climate change, including one that assesses the extent to which more than 23,000 companies are aligned with the temperature goals of the Paris climate agreement.

Kaminker says 10 years ago he’d have never imagined he’d be doing the work he’s doing today. “I’m a finance guy, I am not a climate scientist,” he says. “This is about risks and returns. We’re not doing this for many other reasons. It’s primarily because we’re an investment institution, and these issues could be material to financial considerations.”

Trump Administration Moves at ‘Warp Speed’ To Scrap ESG Rule

The White House bid to make green investing more difficult would likely face legal obstacles.

Despite widespread objections from the money management industry, President Donald Trump, through the U.S. Department of Labor led by Eugene Scalia, is speeding ahead with a proposal to make it more difficult for fiduciaries of retirement plans to direct money to ESG-focused funds.

The Employee Benefits Security Administration submitted the rule change, called “Financial Factors in Selecting Plan Investments,” to the White House last week. The administration’s stance is that ESG investment strategies sacrifice returns and promote goals unrelated to financial performance.

It wants to adjust the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) to require those overseeing pension and 401(k) plans to always put economic interests ahead of so-called non-pecuniary goals, in what seems intended as a direct attack on ESG and green investing.

More than 130 fund management and financial advisory firms have written letters opposing the plan since it surfaced in June. And the complaints keep coming.

“You can’t simply disentangle ESG from the risk-and-return analysis in a 21st century investment process,” said Jonathan Bailey, head of ESG (Investing) at Neuberger Berman Group LLC.

The government is “moving at warp speed” to push through the rule, said Bryan McGannon, director of policy and programs at US SIF, a Washington-based group that supports sustainable investment businesses. It typically takes 18 months, not four-and-a-half months, for an “impactful” rule change like this one, he said, adding the administration may be violating the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) in the attempt.

“It’s clear the Labor Department is not taking the public-comment process seriously,” McGannon said. “Our letter alone had six or seven studies that contested the underlying arguments. Across the financial services world, from huge asset managers to small sustainable-investment firms, there has been enormous opposition.”

The proposal, if enacted, would almost certainly be challenged in court. Moreover, if former Vice President Joe Biden wins the Nov. 3 election, it’s equally likely his administration would seek to undo such a change. Last month, another effort by Scalia to speed through rule changes under the Fair Labor Standards Act was partly overturned by a Manhattan federal court for—you guessed it—violating the APA.

“Not sure how they’re bracing for similar fallout from the ERISA change, or maybe officials there don’t even care,” McGannon said.

on Hale, director of ESG research for the Americas at Chicago-based Morningstar Inc., said the proposed rule is so “shoddily constructed” that it’s unlikely to withstand legal scrutiny.

“It has significant implications for the retirement savings of millions of Americans, yet the DOL saw fit to allow only the shortest possible time for comment and now seeks to finalize it before the current administration gets tossed out of office,” Hale said. “In a normal process, such overwhelming opposition would send regulators back to the drawing board.”

The Labor Department’s decision to undermine environmental, social and governance investing emerged after the White House called for a review of retirement plans’ investments in the energy sector. It’s no secret that the fossil-fuel industry has been a critical supporter of Trump, who has called the globally accepted science behind global warming a “hoax.”

Investors have been increasing their bets on ESG, in part because they want to avoid polluters like Big Oil. About $20 billion flowed into ESG- and values-focused exchange-traded funds this year (as of Sept. 30), exceeding the calendar-year record of $9.2 billion set in 2019, data compiled by Bloomberg Intelligence show.

Climate change ranks right behind corruption among the biggest ESG-related concerns for investors, according to a survey of about 800 fund industry officials and consultants by RBC Global Asset Management.

But America lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to putting ESG to work financially. While 94% of respondents in Europe, 89% in Canada and 72% in Asia said they have incorporated ESG into their investment approach, only 65% of U.S. investors have done so.

Despite the growing global consensus that ESG makes financial sense, some 26% of American investors still think ESG-integrated portfolios will perform worse than non-ESG-integrated portfolios. Worldwide, only 16% of investors think that way.

The bottom line, Neuberger & Berman’s Bailey said, is “focusing on material ESG factors that have an economic impact on companies is directly aligned with the best interests of shareholders.”

Sustainable Finance In Brief

* The markets are divesting you from fossil fuels, as oil and gas account for a smaller and smaller slice of major benchmarks.
* Climate, not elections, will be moving markets soon, says this ESG pioneer.

* Marie Dzanis, head of EMEA for Northern Trust Asset Management, says sustainable investing has outperformed during market volatility and extremely rough economic conditions.

* PwC says that in five years almost 60% of mutual fund assets will be tied to ESG.

* The financial industry is getting pushed ever-closer to formulating universal rules and definitions governing sustainable investing.

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