Major commitments on methane mitigation were a highlight of COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, in November 2021. (Video by Jehan Harney)
Overview: Methane at COP26
Methane and climate change
Methane is now the second biggest cause of global warming, following carbon dioxide, and according to the IPCC is responsible for at least a quarter of the warming over the pre-Industrial era.
- Methane is a short-lived climate pollutant that has more than 80 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, the current time horizon for reaching 1.5° of warming.
- Methane pollution is growing and methane levels are surging at historic rates. A surge since the start of this millennium has led to the highest concentration of atmospheric methane since NOAA first measured it in 1984, and last year saw the largest year-over-year increase on record.
- Methane threatens to undo the progress of the Paris Agreement.
Main anthropogenic sources of methane (Global Methane Initiative)
- Land use (35%): including landfills and biomass
- Fossil fuels (27%): including oil, gas, and coal mining
- Agriculture (26%): including livestock, rice cultivation, and wastewater
Cutting methane emissions as a climate solution
Targeting methane emissions is essential if the world is to stay on a path to 1.5°C of warming.
- Carbon dioxide emissions directly correlate to a rise in the global temperature, so it is necessary to make rapid, aggressive cuts to CO2 emissions. But CO2 stays in the atmosphere for centuries, making warming from current emissions essentially permanent on human timescales.
- Methane, conversely, washes out of the atmosphere in about a dozen years, meaning taking action to reduce emissions can begin to bring down methane levels in the atmosphere in about two decades, delivering a cooling effect. This is critically important as the reduction of coal-fired power will also reduce short-lived aerosol pollution, and the reduction in aerosol pollution which will deliver a short-term boost to warming as aerosols cool the atmosphere by reflecting light back into space.
- According to the Global Methane Assessment, cutting methane by 40-45% this decade will avoid 0.3°C of warming by 2050. We have already heated the planet about 1.1°C over pre-Industrial levels; avoiding these fractions of a degree will make the difference between warming stabilizing around 1.5°C or climbing closer to 2° – with hundreds of thousands of lives, millions of tons of crops, and billions of work hours on the line each year.
- Stopping methane pollution from oil and gas operations can often be done with relative ease. The recent International Energy Agency methane report says almost half of methane emissions from oil and gas operations can be eliminated with measures that have no net cost, and 70% can be avoided with existing technology.
- Replacing gas-fired power altogether, with wind and solar power, would provide a double benefit: The elimination of methane emissions that comes with the production and distribution of methane, and the elimination of the CO2 emissions that occur when gas is burned (about half as intensive as coal-fired power).
Methane emissions as a health risk
Cutting methane will have the associated benefit of preventing thousands of premature deaths each year.
- Exposure to methane pollution has been linked to premature birth, asthma, cancer, and other adverse health impacts, in large part because it is nearly always emitted alongside health-damaging air pollutants that are toxic to human health. These health risks occur at the extraction sites along pipelines, and inside homes, and buildings.
- Ground-level ozone, of which methane is the primary contributor, also contributes to billions of hours of lost labor and millions of tonnes of crop losses in agriculture, as well as asthma in children, respiratory infections, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and also exacerbate cardiovascular disease.
- Heat exposure is currently the primary weather-related illness in the U.S.; Each million tonnes of methane emissions avoided could prevent 500 heat-related deaths worldwide.
Global methane pledge
What it is
The U.S. and the EU will formally announce at COP26 a pledge to collectively cut global methane emissions 30% by 2030 through direct measures.
Who’s in so far?
As of the Brussels ministerial on October 11, 34 countries, including nine of the world’s top 20 methane emitters, accounting for 60% of the global economy and 30% of global methane emissions, had signed onto the pledge. The aim is to recruit additional countries to join up to and during COP26.
- European Union
- United Kingdom
- United States
- Central African Republic
- Costa Rica
- Cote d’Ivoire
- Democratic Republic of the Congo
- Federated States of Micronesia
- Kyrgyz Republic
- The heaviest methane emitters, China, India, Russia and Brazil, have yet to join the pledge, although the comparisons between the U.S. and EU and those countries are not straightforward as much more of their methane comes from agriculture and land use.
- Agricultural methane emissions are much harder to cut compared to methane emissions from oil and gas operations. A 30% cut across the board will be much more challenging for countries with higher emissions coming from agriculture. And, of course, agricultural operations mainly produce food, while fossil fuel operations produce fossil fuels – which are to be phased out.
- Several major emitters, namely the U.S., significantly undercounts its methane emissions and thus under-reports to the COP. Without accurate benchmarks of annual emissions, targets may fall far short of the actual need to reduce methane.
U.S. domestic action
EPA methane rules
The proposed rule, expected this week, on upstream oil and gas operations would sharply limit methane pollution from new and existing infrastructure. These rules will be a key enforcement tool for achieving Biden’s goal to reduce overall greenhouse emissions by half by 2030, as well as meet targets to be established through the Global Methane Pledge to cut 30% of worldwide emissions by the end of the decade.
At the time of writing, specific elements of the Build Back Better Act remain undecided. But the various proposals, as well as the bipartisan infrastructure bill that has already passed the Senate, include a number of mechanisms that will reduce methane emissions as part of policies that encourage the transition away from fossil fuels, including clean energy tax credits, funding to clean up old mines and orphaned wells, improvements to the efficiency of buildings and upgrades to the grid, and more.
Additional future regulatory actions
- Full regulation of methane: The EPA rules only apply to upstream infrastructure. All methane should be regulated as a climate pollutant.
- Pipelines: The Dept. of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) needs to take steps to minimize methane emissions from pipelines. Regulating leaks will help improve safety and combat climate change.
- Agriculture practices and land use: Methane emissions also result from livestock and other agricultural practices, land use, and the decay of organic waste in municipal solid waste landfills. When livestock and manure emissions are combined, the agriculture sector is the largest source of methane emissions in the United States.
- Coal: Regulating methane from
coal mining activities would address nine percent of global anthropogenic methane emissions.
- Liquefied gas exports: If liquefied gas exports aren’t curtailed by the administration, the U.S. will be the world’s largest methane gas exporter by 2023, with exports increasing by 121% over the
next decade, which will prevent the U.S. from meeting their 1.5ºC target.
Thirty international organizations representing more than 70 countries working for the reduction of methane pollution are hosting “The Methane Moment” pavilion at COP26 from Nov. 1 through the 12th. The Methane Pavilion, jointly organized by the Clean Air Task Force, Climate & Clean Air Coalition, Environmental Defense Fund, the UN Environment Programme, and World Resources Institute, is located in the Blue Zone and dedicated to raising awareness of the climate urgency and the opportunities to quickly reduce methane pollution as a complementary strategy to reducing carbon dioxide pollution in order to achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. Environmental groups, which called for the conference’s postponement, will also attend, including in protests around Glasgow and in other climate hubs.
Online – MethaneMoment.org
MethaneMoment.org is the channel for COP26 attendees, both in-person and virtual, to track with and participate in special programming on the methane issue during COP26. Users will be able to find the latest pavilion events, news, resources, experts, and more.