Cutting methane emissions could make a big dent in climate change, major UN report says

The latest IPCC climate report puts a focus on opportunities to slash emissions of methane: Start with the oil and gas industries.

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Monday saw the release of a dire report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It’s the clearest statement yet from thousands of the world’s top climate scientists that human-driven greenhouse gas emissions are the cause of global warming and deadly weather disasters — and that cutting those emissions will require unprecedented action across the world.

That includes massive cuts in carbon dioxide emissions from burning fuels, of course. But carbon dioxide remains trapped in the atmosphere for centuries, delaying the climate-change reduction impact of cuts made today. Focusing on reducing emissions of methane — a shorter-lived but much more powerful global warming gas than carbon dioxide — could offer a rare opportunity to mitigate the looming threat in timescales approaching decades rather than centuries.

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Cutting methane emissions is the single fastest, most effective way there is to slow the rate of global warming right now,” Ilissa Ocko, senior climate scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, said at a Monday press conference.

Methane has more than 80 times the global warming impact of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, but it lingers in the atmosphere for only about a decade compared to more than a century for CO2. That makes cutting methane emissions the leading opportunity to slow down the rate of global warming over the coming decades,” she said — and for the first time, the IPCC’s report says explicitly that methane reductions are important for achieving Paris Agreement targets” to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius over the course of this century.

Methane has been historically undervalued in climate change discussions because of our focus on long-term climate pollutants,” Ocko said. Carbon has come to stand in as a shorthand term for greenhouse gases, even as methane emissions have been rising in intensity over the past decade.

That’s changed with this IPCC report, which contains an entire chapter on short-lived climate forcers” including methane, hydrofluorocarbons, nitrous oxide and black carbon, according to Ocko. Of these pollutants, methane is by far the worse global-warming offender, responsible for roughly one-quarter of temperature increases over the past decade, compared to about 40 percent for carbon dioxide.

Image credit: IPCC

The top priority: Eliminating methane leaks in the oil and gas sectors

About 40 percent of human-caused methane emissions come from agriculture, including a big share from livestock, while a smaller amount, about 15 percent, is attributable to landfills and other organic waste. It’s harder to reduce emissions from those sectors since they’re widely dispersed activities with less clear avenues to enforce regulations or invest in mitigation strategies.

That’s why the initial focus for cutting methane emissions is centered on the roughly one-quarter that come from fossil fuel industries — largely oil and gas wells, as well as from gas pipelines and coal mines. A U.N. report released in May found that human-caused methane emissions can be reduced by 45 percent by 2030, avoiding nearly 0.3 degrees Celsius of global warming by 2045 — a vital step for a planet that the latest IPCC report finds will struggle to keep to the Paris Agreement’s targets.

When it comes to devising a strategy to hit this methane goal, the bottom line is [that methane] can’t [be permitted to] leak,” said Deborah Gordon, a senior principal in RMI’s Climate Intelligence Program. (Canary Media is an independent subsidiary of RMI.)

Natural gas, which consists predominantly of methane, emits roughly half the carbon dioxide of coal when burned to generate electricity. But if even just 3 percent of that gas leaks into the atmosphere between well and power plant, it’s no better than burning coal in terms of its impact on the climate, Gordon said.

Just how much methane leaks from oil and gas wells and pipelines is hard to measure, she said, although research from groups including EDF indicate rates are higher than official government statistics and could even approach up to 7 percent in some parts of the world.

The International Energy Agency estimates that the global oil and gas sector emitted around 70 megatons of methane in 2020, with the global-warming potential equivalent of 2.1 gigatons of carbon dioxide. Those emissions will have to fall by more than 70 percent by 2030 to meet the IEA’s sustainable development scenario.

That rate of leak prevention is not only entirely feasible but also potentially lucrative. Ocko highlighted EDF research indicating that four-fifths of the methane emissions reductions needed over the next decade could be achieved by the oil and gas industries at low or no net cost, simply by instituting practices that capture that methane for useful and revenue-generating work.

We know the technologies exist and can work once they’re put in place,” she said. Captured methane has value for industries such as fertilizer and chemicals manufacturing as well as for burning for heat and electricity generation, she noted.

At the same time, global buyers of natural gas are starting to shy away from sources that aren’t making progress on limiting their leaked emissions, according to Ocko. Last year, French energy company Engie backed out of a $7 billion deal to buy liquefied natural gas from Texas over concerns about fugitive emissions, she said.

Gordon cited Norway as a good example for the world’s oil and gas industries to follow. The country, a major oil and gas producer, has for decades banned practices common in other parts of the world, such as flaring and venting unwanted gas, replacing them with practices such as reinjecting excess methane.

On the other hand, some parts of these industries will be more resistant to investing in mitigating methane leaks, Gordon said. That’s the case for oil fields that contain significant amounts of methane, where the economics [are tilted] toward oil,” she said. Because they make their money selling the liquids, wasting the gas often doesn’t factor into the cost of doing business.”

In cases like these, there’s no incentive, other than being watched over and regulated tightly,” she said. RMI has formed a partnership with London-based startup Systemiq that will certify natural gas based on its associated methane emissions to give buyers a tool to differentiate sources that follow best practices to limit leakage from those that don’t, she added.

Discovering methane leaks is a key first step to eliminating them, and much of the world’s fossil fuel industry lacks standardized and transparent methods and measurements to do this, Gordon added. But a host of projects are launching satellites into orbit that can detect and track such leaks across the globe, notifying industry of where leaks are happening and giving regulators an important tool in combating this climate change threat, she said.

Ratcheting up the urgency on policy development

The upcoming COP26 U.N. climate conference in Scotland this November will serve as the next major opportunity to craft international agreements to deal with the methane threat, said Rick Duke, senior director and White House liaison for U.S. special climate envoy John Kerry, at the press conference on Monday.

This new IPCC report underscores that cutting CO2 is essential, but it isn’t enough,” he said. Methane is the next crucial…climate stabilization prize” to achieve rapid impacts.

Just how the Biden administration will strive for this prize remains a work in progress, he said. On the domestic front, Congress reinstated Obama-era oil and gas methane emissions reduction rules that the Trump administration had sought to roll back. Plus, the EPA plans to issue a rulemaking later this year that could strengthen those requirements. The infrastructure bill now on the verge of passing in Congress includes $16 billion to seal up orphaned” oil and gas wells, he said.

The European Union is proposing similar laws to reduce methane emissions in the oil, gas and coal industries. While oil and gas wells and pipelines are the chief source of fossil fuel industry emissions, coal mines also leak methane, with China the highest-emitting culprit on this front, Duke said.

Hammering out international agreements on methane reduction will be more challenging, according to Duke. Finalized in 1987, the Montreal Protocol and its successor, the Kigali Amendment, successfully brought governments and industry into an agreement to reduce the use of hydrofluorocarbons, a potent greenhouse gas, in air conditioners, refrigerators and industrial applications. This time around, that kind of global consensus will probably be more difficult to achieve. Because methane emissions come from many different sources, we cannot look to a single agreement…to cut methane emissions with the speed and comprehensiveness that we require.”

We do need to tackle waste methane and agricultural methane with equal vigor,” he said. But the most immediate opportunity is fossil methane reduction.”

Methane is also a threat to human health, both for communities living near sources of emissions and on a broader scale as a precursor to the formation of ozone in lower parts of the atmosphere, a major component of smog, Duke added. That makes cutting methane emissions a critical environmental justice opportunity and a critical way to save hundreds of thousands of lives.”

Lisa DeVille, secretary of the nonprofit group Dakota Resource Council and a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, spoke at the Monday press conference to describe her experience living on tribal lands perched atop the Bakken Formation, a major oil- and gas-producing region in North Dakota.

Her family lives less than a mile away from well paths that vent and flare methane unchecked into our atmosphere, making local people like my husband and me sick,” she said. The IPCC report confirms what we know firsthand — that methane emissions are skyrocketing and the pollution from natural gas operations and oil production is a significant contributor to the global surge in this pollution.”

(Lead photo: Chris Liverani/Unsplash)

Jeff St. John is the editor-in-chief of Canary Media. He covers the technology, economic and regulatory issues influencing the global transition to low-carbon energy. He served as managing editor and senior grid edge editor of Greentech Media.