More than 1,000 significant leaks of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, have been detected at landfill waste dumps worldwide since 2019, according to an analysis of global satellite data by The Guardian. The data reveals that South Asian nations, as well as Argentina and Spain, are hotspots for these super-emitter events. Landfills emit methane when organic waste decomposes without oxygen, and methane is known to trap 86 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. Scientists warn that emissions from unmanaged landfills could double by 2050, posing a significant threat to climate goals.
Between January 2019 and June 2023, a total of 1,256 methane super-emitter events were recorded, with Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh leading the list of countries with the most leaks. To reduce landfill emissions, it is crucial to create less organic waste, divert waste away from landfills, or capture the methane that is being released. Taking action to stem methane leaks is one of the most effective and affordable measures to slow global heating, with some measures even paying for themselves when the captured gas is sold as fuel.
Methane emissions have been accelerating since 2007 and currently account for one-third of global heating. This acceleration is of great concern to scientists who fear it poses the biggest threat to staying below the 1.5°C global heating target and could trigger catastrophic climate tipping points. The rise in methane emissions is believed to be driven by global heating, which leads to increased methane production in wetlands, creating a potential vicious circle that makes reductions in human-caused methane emissions even more urgent.
Decomposing waste is responsible for approximately 20% of human-caused methane emissions, while fossil fuel operations account for 40% and cattle and paddy fields for the remaining 40%. Experts argue that reducing methane emissions from landfills is essential to meeting the global temperature target of 1.5°C. The International Solid Waste Association has highlighted that about 40% of the world’s waste still goes to unmanaged dumps, making it crucial to address emissions from the waste industry to achieve the global methane reduction pledge of 30% by 2030.
Satellite image analysis provided by the company Kayrros reveals that waste is a significant source of methane emissions, particularly in countries like India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. In addition to being a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, waste represents a missed opportunity to tap into a fuel resource that could help meet energy needs. The satellite used by Kayrros orbits the planet 14 times a day, providing global coverage and locating leaks within approximately six miles. Higher-resolution satellites with less frequent orbits can pinpoint the specific waste facilities responsible for emissions.
Delhi, the capital of India, has experienced at least 124 super-emitter events from city landfills since 2020. Dr. Richa Singh of the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi emphasizes the urgent need for intervention in the waste sector, as methane leaks from the global oil and gas industry receive significant attention. Given India’s vulnerability to the impacts of the climate crisis, reducing methane emissions is of particular importance. Addressing landfill emissions would also help eliminate fires, air pollution, and water pollution caused by landfills.
Methane is generated in landfill dumps when waste food and other organic materials decompose in an oxygen-depleted environment. Proper waste management systems can either divert organic material from landfills into biodigesters that produce methane fuel or cover landfills and capture the gas. Burning methane converts it into carbon dioxide, a less potent greenhouse gas. The worst methane leak event in India occurred in April 2022 in Delhi, with methane being released into the atmosphere at a rate equivalent to the pollution caused by 68 million petrol cars running simultaneously. The “trash mountains” in Delhi, which are miles wide and 60 meters high, not only contribute to air pollution but also pose health risks to nearby residents.
In Pakistan, an outburst near Lahore in February released methane at a rate equivalent to 34 million car exhausts. The assessment of methane leaks in Bangladesh is complicated by widespread illegal tapping of gas pipes, which causes significant leaks in urban areas that can be difficult to distinguish from landfill emissions. The article highlights that addressing methane emissions from the waste sector is crucial to meeting climate targets and emphasizes the need to reduce the amount of waste going to unmanaged dumps.