Natural gas may be cleaner burning than other fossil fuels like coal, but leaking methane can cause issues much more serious than those we are mitigating. According to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), “…methane leaking during the production, delivery, and use of natural gas has the potential to undo much of the greenhouse gas benefits we think we’re getting when natural gas is substituted for other fuels.”
A partnership between the EDF and Google has uncovered more than 5,500 leaks since trials began in 2012. Equipping Google’s fleet of Street View cars with an array of low-cost sensors has allowed the EDF to collect enough data to make maps of methane leaks for 11 cities.
Methane leaks in Boston. Image source: EDF
Identifying these leaks could have a huge impact on climate change, as the EDF reports that “methane is more than 100 times more potent at trapping energy than carbon dioxide (CO2), the principal contributor to man-made climate change.” Even more, its conversion to CO2 makes methane “84 times more potent after 20 years and 28 times more potent after 100 years.”
The maps can help utility companies prioritize the allocation of resources to better address these leaks. Also, the partnership has expanded the scope of their efforts by measuring overall air quality. Two years after the initial program began, the Street View fleet was equipped with a “Environmental Intelligence” mobile platform.
Defending the Earth from climate change has been an uphill battle for decades. The recent move from the Trump administration to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement is only the latest example of this unfortunate reality.
However, efforts similar to that of Google and the EDF are helping people to understand of the problem climate change, ultimately leading to numbers like 70 percent of Americans supporting the Paris accord. These maps can equip environmental activists with hyperlocalized data enabling them to target specific problem areas in their communities. Such localized efforts can have big impacts despite apathy on the national level.