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UN call for urgent steps to reduce methane emissions this decade
A global methane assessment published by the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) suggests that human-caused methane emissions can be reduced by up to 45% this decade. Such reductions would avoid nearly 0.3°C of global warming by 2045 and would be consistent with keeping the Paris Climate Agreement’s goal to limit global temperature rise to 1.5˚C within reach.
The assessment, for the first time, integrates the climate and air pollution costs and benefits from methane mitigation.
The need for action is urgent, says the report. Human-caused methane emissions are increasing faster than any time since record keeping began in the 1980s. Despite a COVID-19 induced economic slowdown in 2020 that prevented another record year for CO2 emissions, the amount of methane in the atmosphere shot up to record levels according to data recently released by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA ).
This is a concern because methane is a an extremely powerful greenhouse gas, responsible for about 30% of warming since pre-industrial times. However, unlike CO2 which stays in the atmosphere for 100s of years, methane starts breaking down quickly, with most of it gone after a decade. This means cutting methane emissions now can rapidly reduce the rate of warming in the near-term.
The report notes that most human-caused methane emissions come from three sectors – fossil fuels, waste and agriculture. In the fossil fuel sector, oil and gas extraction, processing and distribution account for 23% of emissions, and coal mining 12%. In the waste sector, landfills and wastewater make up about 20% of emissions. In the agricultural sector, livestock emissions from manure and enteric fermentation represent roughly 32%, and rice cultivation 8% of emissions.
The assessment identifies measures that specifically target methane. By implementing these readily available solutions methane emissions could be reduced by 30% by 2030. Most are in the fossil fuel sector, where it is relatively easily to locate and fix methane leaks and reduce venting. There are also targeted measures that can be used in the waste and agriculture sectors.
Roughly 60% of these targeted measures are low cost and 50% of those have negative costs, meaning companies make money from taking action. The greatest potential for negative costs is in the oil and gas industry, where preventing leaks and capturing methane adds to revenue instead of releasing the gas into the atmosphere.
But targeted measures alone are not enough, warns the study. Additional measures that do not specifically target methane, like a shift to renewable energy, residential and commercial energy efficiency, and a reduction in food loss and waste, could reduce methane emissions by a further 15% by 2030.
The assessment found that the mitigation potential varies between countries and regions. The largest potential in Europe and India is in the waste sector. In China it is from coal production followed by livestock, while in Africa it is from livestock followed by oil and gas. In the Asia-Pacific region, excluding China and India, it is coal and waste, and in the Middle East, North America and Russia it is from oil and gas. In Latin America it is from the livestock subsector.
There is growing government ambition to do more to reduce methane. In October 2020, the European Commission adopted the European Union Methane Strategy that outlines measures to cut methane emissions in Europe and internationally.
On 29 April 2021, the US Senate passed a bi-partisan vote to reinstate Obama-era regulations to control leaks from oil and gas wells. It requires companies to monitor, plug and capture methane from new drilling sites.
During the Leaders Summit on Climate in April, leaders across the globe called for reductions in methane. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin called for global action on methane saying: ‘We must take into account absolutely every cause of global warming’ and ‘it would be extremely important to develop broad and effective international cooperation in the calculation and monitoring of all polluting emissions into the atmosphere.’ President Emmanuel Macron of France said: ‘[It is] important for all of us to start the fight to reduce methane emissions.’ Argentina’s President Alberto Fernández also stressed ‘a plan to reduce methane emissions’, while Vietnam’s President Nguyen Xuan Phuc said Vietnam plans to reduce methane emissions from agriculture by 10% by 2030.
At the Summit, energy ministries from the US, Canada, Norway, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia – which represent 40% of global oil and gas production – established the cooperative Net Zero Producers Forum to create pragmatic net-zero strategies, including methane abatement.