Last November, the UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, was held in Glasgow with the hope that the world would collectively find answers to the climate change challenge.
Much of the attention during the conference centred on carbon dioxide emissions and fossil fuels, and their impact on the environment. However, little attention was given to another major source of pollution and another key contributor to the pollution of the environment: Methane.
While the climate change threat posed by CO2 emissions dominates news headlines, methane — the planet’s second most abundant greenhouse gas — has largely slipped under the radar.
Few may be aware that methane emissions are the second largest cause of global warming.
Methane has more than 80 times the warming power of CO2 over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere; even though CO2 has longer-lasting effects, methane sets the pace for warming in the near term. At least 25 percent of today’s warming is driven by methane from human actions.
While methane tends to receive less attention than CO2, reducing methane emissions will be critical for avoiding the worst effects of climate change. “Cutting methane is the biggest opportunity to slow warming between now and 2040,” Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development and a lead reviewer for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said recently. “We need to face this emergency.”
In order to address this issue, the world will need to understand more about this gas, where it comes from, and what can be done about it.
Much of its emissions come from agriculture-related activities (including fermentation, fertilizer management, and rice cultivation), landfills and wastewater, as well as livestock.
Methane also enters the atmosphere from fossil fuels, particularly, coal, emitted from active and abandoned mines as well as undeveloped coal veins. Methane is also released throughout other stages of oil and gas production, and from electricity and heat generation.
One reason why the fight has been held back is a lack of reliable data about its sources. To address this issue, different initiatives have been launched in the last few years.
In 2019 the International Energy Agency in Paris launched a methane tracker to focus on emissions from oil and gas operations — deemed the area with the most cost-effective potential for reducing emissions.
In 2021, the International Energy Forum based in Riyadh launched the IEF Methane Initiative to develop an emissions measurement methodology, using satellites to enable countries to collect standardized data and mitigate methane emissions from the energy industry.
These are all steps in the right direction to increase transparency and cut emissions, which will have a big impact in the short-term, buying the planet valuable time to meet climate targets by the middle of the century.
There are many low-hanging fruits that can reduce emissions, through research and development, standards to control fossil and landfill methane emissions, and incentives to address agricultural methane.
Composting is one method to reduce methane emissions from organic waste currently stockpiled or sent to landfill, as will enhancing biomass production, the application of low-cost plant growth regulators and bio-fertilizers, agricultural conservation practices, and reducing pesticide use. Considering that 36 percent of global methane emissions come from agriculture, any improvement will help.
The world will need to continue to phase out dangerous ozone-depleting CFC chemicals commonly used in refrigerants and foam insulation. Also, replacing ageing oil and gas infrastructure in some regions could prevent methane leaking into the atmosphere from old oil and gas facilities.
The EU, which imports most of its gas from Russia and North Africa, can also establish procedures to clean up the imports, enforcing measures to better manage, monitor and regulate methane emissions.
A recent assessment report released by the Climate and Clean Air Coalition and the UN Environment Programme shows that human-caused methane emissions can be reduced by up to 45 percent this decade.
Such reductions would avoid nearly 0.3 C of global warming by 2045, and keep the Paris Climate Agreement’s goal to limit the rise of global temperatures to 1.5 C within reach.
However, human-caused methane emissions are increasing faster than at any time since records began in the 1980s. Dspite a COVID-19 induced economic slowdown in 2020, which prevented another record year for CO2 emissions, methane in the atmosphere hit record levels according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Cutting methane is the strongest lever the world has to slow climate change over the next 25 years. The benefits to society, economies, and the environment are numerous and far outweigh the cost.
The world will need to pay attention if it is serious about tackling climate change. International cooperation is needed to reduce emissions this decade, and give the world breathing space to address challenges posed by other greenhouse gases.