California plans to launch a satellite, barely bigger than two shoe boxes, to pinpoint greenhouse emissions as part of its fight against global warming.

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A satellite photo showing methane emissions across the United States (AP Photo/NASA, JPL-Caltech, University of Michigan)

By Daisy Lawrence

What’s the size of two shoe boxes and costs $60 million?

California’s newest effort to combat climate change.

The U.S. state is teaming up with scientists and investors to build and launch a satellite that will pinpoint sources of greenhouse gases that are contributing to global warming.

“With science still under attack and the climate threat growing, we’re launching our own damn satellite,” a combative Governor Jerry Brown told several thousand delegates at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco in September.

“This groundbreaking initiative will help governments, businesses and landowners pinpoint — and stop — destructive emissions with unprecedented precision, on a scale that’s never been done before.”

California is joining forces with San Francisco-based Planet Labs, which operates the world’s largest fleet of satellites, and private investors to track carbon dioxide emissions and methane leaks that are contributing to the earth’s warming.

Planet was founded in 2010 by scientists who had worked at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). In the past two years, it has launched more than 150 earth-imaging satellites, helping clients in agriculture, government, mapping and non-governmental organizations to make better decisions.

The plan is to launch a first satellite by 2021. The data would first be made available to California and perhaps later to countries around the world.

A bit bigger than two shoe boxes end-to-end.

To learn more about the project, I spoke to one of the investors who is helping get the project off the ground — Richard Lawrence.

Lawrence is an investment fund manager turned climate change activist who has founded two innovative projects — Proyecto Mirador, which helps build clean-burning cookstoves in Honduras, and Cool Effect, a non-profit crowd-funding platform that facilitates the exchange of carbon credits. Through his Overlook International Foundation, Lawrence is providing seed money for the satellite project.

So, what is this satellite exactly?

“A bit bigger than two shoe boxes end-to-end,” Lawrence told me over the phone. The low-orbit satellite will have a camera that can “pinpoint down to a 30-square-meter area — a third of a football field — of methane leaks.”

Lawrence is particularly interested in identifying leaking methane because it is an especially destructive greenhouse gas.

Methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the first two decades after its release, and it accounts for about one quarter of man-made global warming, according to the nonprofit environmental advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

Cows belch and flatulate.

Where does methane leakage come from? First and foremost, from the oil and gas industry.

“Sometimes, when you are drilling for oil, gas comes up with it,” Lawrence explained. An EDF study found that the oil and gas industry emits eight million metric tons of methane a year, and wasted gas that leaks out as methane is enough to fuel 10 million homes a year and worth about $2 billion.

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California Governor Jerry Brown (center) flanked by satellite initiative partners. Richard Lawrence is second from left. (c/o Office of Gov. Edmund Brown)

Methane leaks from natural gas being transported to a pipeline or a factor can be very risky. In recent years, gas leaks from pipes in San Bruno, California and towns in Massachusetts led to large explosions, the most recent accident near Boston forcing 8,000 people from their homes.

The second biggest methane emitter is agriculture, mainly dairy farming. When cows belch and flatulate — called “enteric fermentation” — they release methane gas. Manure used in farming is another major contributor of methane.

Lawrence said the satellite will be able to identify farms with the biggest leaks, enabling authorities to confront the farmers — “fine them, regulate them, encourage them to invest to reduce their methane and capture the methane from the cows.”

Fearing increased costs and lost productivity, the dairy industry has historically resisted efforts to regulate methane emissions. “By nature’s design, (cows) pass lots of gas,” Anja Raudabaugh, chief executive of Western United Dairymen, was quoted as saying. “Quite frankly, we want them to expel gas so they don’t explode.”

The first satellite will cost about $60 million, and Lawrence hopes that with economies of scale, a second satellite would cost half as much and a third $10 million. Under the project’s tentative business plan, data collected by the satellite on methane leaks would be freely accessible, while information on other greenhouse gases could be sold.

Later this month, Lawrence plans to go to Southern California to watch Planet launch a rocket with low-altitude satellites similar to the one he is helping to fund.

“Scientists believe that this satellite, working in California and around the world, can identify as much as 750 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent that are leaking, and lead to regulations to close those leaks,” Lawrence said.

California’s efforts stand in contrast with the policies of President Donald Trump’s administration, which according to the journal Science plans to cut funding for a satellite and aircraft-based system to monitor climate-changing emissions.

By harnessing the power of philanthropy and technology, California is adhering to its commitment to address climate change, blazing a trail as a global leader in the arena.

THREE QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:

  1. How could a satellite help combat global warming?
  2. Can California make a difference with respect to a global problem like climate change?
  3. What is your state or country doing to fight global warming?

Daisy Lawrence is in her second-to-last year at the Thacher School in California. She is the founder and co-president of Thacher’s Political Alliance and an avid writer for the school newspaper, The Notes. She loves studying History, English and current events.

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