Overview: Methane at COP27
Methane is the second biggest cause of global warming, following carbon dioxide. It’s responsible for about half of the 1.1°C of warming, according to the IPCC.
- 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.
- Global methane pollution is growing at historic rates, and are currently at an all time-high. 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 (International Energy Agency) – 356.9 million tonnes in 2021
- Agriculture – 141.4 Mt (39.6%)
- Fossil fuels – 135.2 Mt (37.9%)
- Waste – 73.0 Mt (20.5%)
- Other – 7.3 Mt (2.0%)
Cutting methane emissions as an essential climate solution
- Without cutting methane significantly and rapidly, staying under 1.5°C will not be possible, and 2°C is increasingly out of reach.
- According to the IPCC, methane emissions must fall by 34% by 2030 in order to stay on a 1.5°C pathway.
- Due to the short lifetime of methane in the atmosphere, deep cuts in methane emissions are the best realistic means of lowering the peak global warming in the near-term.
- 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.
- So-called “natural” gas is primarily comprised of methane. Methane escapes throughout the production cycle of gas, from wellhead into the home. Fixing leaks, prohibiting voluntary venting and flaring, and basic facility maintenance can achieve significant methane emissions reductions.
- 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
According to the IPCC, methane’s role in avoiding every additional 0.1°C of warming is critical to avoiding worse impacts to people and ecosystems. 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. In the U.S., higher methane leakage is strongly correlated with other socioeconomic vulnerabilities: Methane leaks are the worst in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.
- 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.
What’s new for COP27
One year after the Global Methane Pledge
The Global Methane Pledge, jointly launched at COP26 by the United States and the European Union, was the first major commitment by the global community that focused on methane. More than 120 countries signed on in Glasgow and in the months that followed, agreeing to take voluntary actions to contribute to a collective effort to reduce global methane emissions at least 30% from 2020 levels by 2030. COP27 will be a key opportunity to take stock of the progress made on the Pledge, and where greater ambition is required.
Some country-level movement on methane mitigation policies
- In the U.S., EPA issued a rule addressing existing sources of methane across the country for the first time, a good start that provides a pathway EPA can follow to issue a robust and protective final rule by the end of 2022.
- In the EU, the European Commission developed its first EU-wide proposal to cut methane emissions from the energy sector, with methane regulations to be finalized by 2023.
- Canada is launching a second round of regulations to reduce methane emissions with a 75% reduction goal, building on their 2018 regulations.
- Mexico announced a new project to fully implement methane emissions reductions through financing and technical collaboration.
- Colombia became the first South American country to regulate methane emissions from its oil and gas sector with new standards released in February 2022.
- Ecuador worked with Clean Air Task Force to assess methane emissions from its oil and gas sector – and to begin to develop a plan to reduce emissions.
- Argentina is also working on methane regulations.
- Egypt has launched several efforts to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas flaring, effectively reducing flaring from its oil and gas sector 26%.
- Nigeria has set a world-leading target to reduce 60% of its fugitive methane emissions by 2031, and has included that target in its Nationally Determined Contribution. It plans to finalize its regulations by the end of this year.
- The EU, Japan, and South Korea are discussing import standards to reduce methane emissions from their imported gas.
- Measurable progress has not yet been achieved on either methane emissions or absolute methane levels. In fact, 2021 saw the highest year-on-year jump of methane concentrations in the atmosphere on record, according to the World Meteorological Organization’s Greenhouse Gas Bulletin.
- The heaviest methane emitters, China, India, Russia and Brazil, have so far refused to join the pledge.
- Agriculture, in particular, remains a major sticking point for countries that have held out. 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.
- Finance remains an area of concern. Methane mitigation accounted for less than 2% of total climate finance flows in 2019 and 2020, lagging far behind other sectors.
- Infrastructure for the Pledge remains vague. Success, or even measurable progress, will depend on setting transparent reporting mechanisms, accountability to pledges, and binding agreements.
Updates to U.S. domestic action
Inflation Reduction Act
The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), passed this summer, included provisions that have the potential to reshape the landscape on methane, if implemented without loopholes and fully enforced.
Methane Emissions Reduction Program
The Methane Emissions Reduction Program (MERP) created by the Inflation Reduction Act assesses a “waste charge” fee on oil and gas facilities for emissions over certain intensity thresholds for production, nonproduction, and transmission, beginning in 2024:
- Covered facilities are based on criteria already established by the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program
- The fees for excess emissions are: $900/ton in 2024, $1,200/ton in 2025, and $1,500 in 2026 and beyond, incentivizing covered facilities to eliminate emissions from leaks, venting, and flaring
- These fees will take effect earlier than strengthened EPA rules (currently undergoing the comment and revision process, and will likely take several years to be implemented by states)
- The methane fee does not cover small producers, a concession to Sen. Manchin and industry, which claims regulation is too burdensome
- The MERP applies to petroleum and natural gas systems emitting more than 25,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent gas, covering just an estimated 40% of industry emissions
- The Congressional Research Service pegged the number of covered facilities at 2,172, accounting for 78.3 MMTCO2e of methane emissions
- Also not covered are all gas distribution facilities, which EPA previously identified as another significant source of the oil and gas industry’s methane emissions
MERP goes beyond proposed EPA regulations currently under consideration:
- Unlike the proposed rule, it will cover offshore oil and gas production
- Facilities in compliance with EPA methane regulations will be exempt from the fee, but future changes in EPA’s reporting requirements (see below) could improve the accuracy and effective stringency of the MERP
- It bolsters EPA’s authority to regulate methane under the Clean Air Act
The IRA requires the EPA to update the Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program within two years, to be based on empirical data.
- Current reporting does not require producers to actually measure their emissions, but instead calculates easily manipulated estimates based on the type of equipment used and the kind of facility, multiplied by the number of operating hours
- EPA underestimates methane emissions significantly, potentially by more than half under the current system
Assistance for methane mitigation
The IRA provides $850 million in grants, loans, and other assistance to support facilities subject to the MERP to reduce methane emissions, plus $700 million for activities at marginal conventional wells. Specifically, this funding – which runs through FY2028 – includes support for:
- Improving climate resilience of oil and gas systems, and communities
- Industrial equipment and processes that reduce methane, other pollution, and waste
- Plugging wells on non-federal lands – building on the 2021 infrastructure law, which put $4.7 billion toward a program to plug orphan wells.
The EPA receives $5 million – running through FY2031 – to improve standardization and verification of corporate climate pledges, which could potentially fill a gap on enforcement in the event of a weakened SEC rule on Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) criteria. This provision emphasizes “enhanced standardization and transparency” in oversight of corporate climate goals and progress toward targets, and could result in mandatory disclosure requirements.
EPA methane rules
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released its proposed methane rule at COP26, the same day as the Pledge formally launched. The proposed rule for the first time would apply tightened emissions requirements to existing, not just new, oil and gas wells. It would require companies to find and fix leaks at well sites and compressor stations, impose new requirements for zero-emitting pneumatic controllers, prohibit venting from oil wells and strengthen emissions requirements on storage tanks.
The EPA is expected to add a supplemental proposed rule this fall in response to comments provided by the public following the initial rule release. The rule is expected to be finalized next year.
In addition to providing funding to support oversight, the IRA strengthens the EPA’s hand by opening the door to more accurate reporting requirements, which should in turn make fees and regulations apply to more facilities.
Additional future regulatory actions
- Full regulation of methane: The EPA rules only apply to upstream oil and gas 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 gathering, transmission, and distribution 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 (though regulations or incentives that promote installation of biodigesters must be crafted to mitigate unintended consequences).
- 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.
Area of concern: Geopolitical crises overtake pledges
Gas importing countries around the world scrambled to shore up their energy supplies following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. With the global community stopped short of sanctioning Russian gas exports, the war nonetheless severely curtailed flows of Russian gas to Europe, roiling the global market, spiking the cost of U.S. gas (LNG) and leaving countries without adequate fuel to generate power to keep the lights on this summer and keep people warm this winter. In many corners, governments delayed or backslided on policies and pledges that would wind down gas, restarted or extended coal plants, and otherwise prioritized short-term energy supply over emissions reductions.
Ensuring global energy security in the future, however, demands accelerating the energy transition today:
- Climate, health, and safety harms of reliance on methane gas, global gas markets’ vulnerability to manipulation by bad actors, and consumers forced to pay sky-high prices even as shareholders pocket record profits are all clear reasons to move away from gas as quickly as possible.
- Moreover, US gas exports can’t come to the rescue in the current crisis. Existing export terminals are at capacity, producers have limited investment in new extraction, and it would take years for any new terminals to be ready to ship gas to markets overseas. (Of the almost two-dozen planned terminals that are already approved or proposed, only three have reached a final investment decision and broken ground; they are still about two years away from being ready to go online.)
- Gas exports raise prices for U.S. consumers. Exports expose the domestic gas market to international market prices and a larger bidding pool, both of which result in higher prices for domestic consumers.
- In developing markets, profits from domestic oil and gas production go to Big Oil – while the risks and harms to public health and the environment are borne by local communities.
- The majority of the profits made from oil and gas exploration in Africa don’t stay in Africa – they go to Big Oil. Much of what is produced is shipped to other countries for export.
- Communities near several proposed pipelines across parts of Africa threaten to bring similar damage and injustices to communities in Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa, and Algeria as those faced by communities – primary communities of color – who live near export facilities in the U.S. Gulf.
At COP and online: MethaneMoment.org
Climate Nexus will again join a coalition of dozens of international organizations working for the reduction of methane pollution at COP27. Experts will be available to speak to the press and other interested parties about methane, including sectoral emissions (energy, agriculture, waste) and technology solutions, upon request. MethaneMoment.org will again be the guide to methane activities at COP27, available to attendees and remote viewers, and will include a calendar of events, resources, spokespeople, and more.
With thanks to Clean Air Task Force and Environmental Defense Fund