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Reducing methane emissions – priorities, possibilities and approaches

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Reducing methane emissions – priorities, possibilities and approaches

A transparent monitoring and accountability framework is necessary to reduce methane pollution – including in the fossil fuel sector, until the energy transition is fully implemented.

The recent methane leak in Kazakhstan, which started in June 2023 and lasted for a period of six months [1], brought methane emissions into the spotlight of the many facets of human-induced climate change. A short-lived greenhouse gas, methane directly contributes to climate change, considered responsible for roughly a third of current warming levels. Although methane’s lifetime is brief, consisting of about a decade, its warming effects can be 80 times greater than that of carbon dioxide in the 20 years following release into the atmosphere. The bright side is that, according to experts, action to mitigate methane emissions could be implemented at negative or low cost, particularly in the fossil fuel sector. Failure to act, however, could lead to a rise in methane emissions of up to 13% between 2020 and 2030, according to UNEP estimates. This is particularly alarming given warnings that methane emissions must be reduced by 30-60% during the same period and by nearly 80% by 2050, in order to achieve the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C [2]. In the light of this, policy-making for the mitigation of methane emissions is an important global climate priority.

Human-induced methane emissions mainly come from three sectors: agriculture, fossil fuels, and waste. The graph below illustrates the distribution of methane emissions across the three sectors:

A graph of a number of emissions

Description automatically generated

Graph created with data from [2].

This article focuses on available approaches to reducing methane emissions in the fossil fuel industry presently, to slow down climate change until long-term sustainable energy solutions are fully implemented. According to the UNEP, methane emissions in the fossil fuel sector have the greatest potential of being reduced in the immediate future in cost-effective ways. Indeed, solutions to methane leaks can be as simple as fixing loose valves and faulty equipment [3]. It is estimated that negative or low-cost methane abatement measures could cover 80% of methane emissions in the oil and gas sector and up to 98% in the case of coal. Additionally, the cost of deploying all existing strategies of methane mitigation in the oil and gas industry through 2030 would represent less than 2% of net income earned by the same industry in 2022 [2].

In a previous article (Sustainable development & the private sector) it was suggested that private investment in sustainable development could produce a win-win situation both for businesses and for the environment. Similar appears to be the case of methane mitigation: desirable in the first instance for environmental reasons, methane-leak prevention is at the same time economically profitable – given, among other reasons, that methane is the primary component of natural gas [3]. According to the UNEP, methane mitigation in the fossil fuel sector could prevent ‘nearly 1 million premature deaths due to ozone exposure, 90 million tonnes of crop losses due to ozone and climate changes, and about 85 billion hours of lost labour due to heat exposure by 2050, providing roughly USD 260 billion in direct economic benefits’ [2].

Action to prevent methane leaks requires in the first instance effective leak detection mechanisms. However, tracking methane emissions is tricky – not least because the gas is both odourless and invisible to the naked eye. As Manfredi Caltagirone, head of the International Methane Emissions Observatory (IMEO), puts it: ‘The big challenge is knowing exactly how much is being emitted, where it is being emitted and for how long it has been emitted’ [4]. Satellites are becoming more effective at tracking massive methane leak emissions (aka super-emitter events) – like the recent leak in Kazakhstan; and the growing number of satellites available improves our ability to detect leaks across the globe. But satellites cannot detect as efficiently low levels of methane emissions, which collectively can be just as harmful. As Mark Radka, chief of UNEP’s Energy and Climate Branch, states: ‘Satellites are now good at spotting big emission events, and they are getting more precise, with better resolution, but they won’t spot the smaller emissions. We need to put those large sources in the context of the overall emissions, where lots of small emissions can be just as damaging’ [4].

A monitoring system that can provide accurate data regarding the precise location and amount of methane released into the atmosphere would present a valuable resource to support data-driven policymaking.

The IMEO, launched in October 2021 with precisely this aim of addressing the issue of insufficient data, seeks to create a public database of methane emissions, so that appropriate responses can be delivered by governments and companies alike [4]. To quote the IMEO’s key message: ‘Reducing methane emissions is the single fastest way to slow global warming as we decarbonize’ – but to achieve this, empirical data is needed [5].

The principles of transparency and accountability, which form an essential component of our overarching climate change mitigation strategy, must also form an integral aspect of methane pollution abatement.

Companies will have to play an active role, committing to accurately tracking and monitoring their methane emissions. The Oil and Gas Methane Partnership 2.0 (OGMP 2.0) reflects this principle, bringing together companies that voluntarily commit to measuring and reporting their methane emissions [4]. According to OGMP data, over 120 companies have joined this initiative, representing assets from more than 70 countries and accounting for about 38% of global oil and gas production, 80% of LNG flows, 25% of natural gas transmission and distribution pipelines, and 10% of global gas storage capacity [6]. The Global Methane Pledge presents another milestone in the path towards reducing methane emissions, bringing together 155 countries in a shared commitment to reduce their collective methane emissions by at least 30% by the end of this decade, as compared to 2020 levels [7]. In addition to voluntary commitments, a concrete legal framework could further enhance accountability regarding methane emissions – as pursued for example by the EU, which in November 2023 introduced a provisional agreement that ‘will oblige the fossil gas, oil and coal industry to properly measure, monitor, report and verify their methane emissions according to the highest monitoring standards, and to take action to reduce them’ [8].

Governments, businesses and international organizations all have a role to play in regulating the fossil fuel industry and reducing as much as possible its share of methane pollution, alongside long-term solutions for the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. Moreover, further research exploring methane abatement measures in the agricultural and waste sectors can open new pathways for comprehensive, evidence-based solutions – widening thus possibilities for climate action. Reducing methane pollution is the best strategy for slowing down the rate of global warming presently, and thus represents a key priority in global policy-making for the mitigation of climate change.

References

[1] M. Silva, D. Palumbo, and E. Rivault, ‘Kazakhstan: Methane mega-leak went on for months’, BBC News, Feb. 16, 2024. [Online]. Available: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-68166298

[2] UNEP, ‘Facts about Methane’, UNEP – UN Environment Programme. [Online]. Available: http://www.unep.org/explore-topics/energy/facts-about-methane

[3] OGMP2.0, ‘More about methane’. [Online]. Available: https://ogmpartnership.com/more-about-methane/

[4] UNEP, ‘How secretive methane leaks are driving climate change’, UNEP – UN Environment Programme. [Online]. Available: https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/how-secretive-methane-leaks-are-driving-climate-change

[5] UNEP, ‘International Methane Emissions Observatory’, UNEP – UN Environment Programme. [Online]. Available: http://www.unep.org/topics/energy/methane/international-methane-emissions-observatory

[6] OGMP2.0, ‘A solution to the methane challenge – OGMP 2.0’. [Online]. Available: https://ogmpartnership.com/a-solution-to-the-methane-challenge/

[7] Global Methane Pledge, ‘Global Methane Pledge | Homepage’, Global Methane Pledge. [Online]. Available: https://www.globalmethanepledge.org/

[8] European Commission, ‘Deal on first-ever EU law to curb methane emissions’, European Commission | Press release. [Online]. Available: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_23_5776

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