Global warming is the chief challenge facing the international community. This is caused by greenhouse gases, with carbon dioxide (CO2) widely identified as the chief culprit. This is not the only greenhouse gas, however. The gas that is second on the list of the worst greenhouse gas contributors to climate change is methane. It also creates both air pollution and causes ozone depletion. But while the efforts to reduce C02 emissions are widely highlighted, the battle to reduce methane emissions is less well-known. With the European Union’s methane strategy of 2020 and new legislation underway to curb methane emissions, the European Union (EU) is taking a lead on this issue. And there are signs that awareness is growing in other countries and regions of the need for action to address the methane issue.
Carbon dioxide vs. methane
In the family of gases and emissions that affect global warming, CO2 is the most long-living pollutant, and the most widespread. The others, so-called short lived climate pollutants, also contribute to the greenhouse effect, but disappear from the atmosphere relatively quickly. Methane is one of those (the others are fluoride gases, ozone, soot/black carbon, etc.). CO2 stays in the atmosphere for thousands of years, but methane is gone in about 10 to 15 years. The sting though, is that whilst methane is in the atmosphere, it has a more detrimental effect than CO2, up to 85 times worse than CO2 (over a 20-year time frame).
If we reduce methane, CO2 and these other gases quickly, we can significantly reduce global warming within our life-times. By the same token, cutting methane emissions is highly relevant to reach our 2050 climate objectives.
In short, we need to do both. Reducing methane is a sure way to slow down global warming, but only cutting CO2 emissions will result in a long-term stability of the climate.
Where does it come from?
Methane (CH4) is the major component of natural gas (fossil gas) and bio-methane (gas from agricultural wastes). Oil and coal operations also release large amounts of methane. It comes from waste streams, especially open air rubbish dumps, and from agriculture. And there is significant background methane emissions from swamps and the animal kingdom.
Of these sources, the oil, gas and coal sectors could reduce their methane emissions relatively swiftly. In waste, simple good practices can have a large impact: by triggering a reduction in waste over 20 years, the EU landfill directive has helped halve EU methane. (This is why we separate our food waste in the EU.)
Addressing methane emissions from agriculture is more difficult, however, as meat remains an important component of our diet. Livestock remains an important source of methane. And while each cow, pig or other farm animal is small and may only produce small volumes of it, the combined effect from the farming sector is large. Any behavioural change in this sector will have a big impact on lifestyle – and in particular on the economic, social and cultural situation in rural areas.
EU and global action
The EU has agreed to concentrate its efforts on the anthropogenic sources described above, and has defined oil, fossil gas and coal as priority areas for action. The upcoming legislative proposal targets precisely the need to reduce energy-related methane emissions. In other fields of action, agriculture and waste are also in focus. For agriculture in particular, a key issue is to correctly describe the trade-off between food, animal welfare and the natural biogenic methane cycle.
Looking at oil, fossil gas and coal, we do not produce a great deal of these hydrocarbons in the EU anymore. And where we do, the industries reliant on them are in decline. As a result, the EU is the world’s largest oil, gas and coal importer, but most of the methane emissions associated with this consumption are outside the EU borders. So our strategy is to use our purchasing power to drive change outside of the EU.
Published in October 2020, the EU methane strategy sets out how the EU will legislate to measure, report and verify methane emissions, put limits on venting (intentional release of methane) and flaring (deliberate burning of gas), and impose requirements to detect leaks, and repair them. These measures will apply in Europe, but we hope in exporting countries as well.
Which is why the Global Methane Pledge that the EU and the United States of America have agreed to sponsor is so innovative. The initiative will be launched at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November. It gives a collective target of reducing 30% of global methane emissions by 2030. The world’s largest hydrocarbon producer (USA) and the largest consumption point (the EU) have already agreed to work to decrease methane emissions along supply chains. Going beyond national responsibility, we acknowledge collective responsibility. The aim now is to get other countries, whether producers or consumers, to sign up to this pledge.
As well as this, the EU and the US will continue to work with partners in all continents within the Climate and Clean Air Coalition. We can work jointly to reduce methane emissions in global trade, whether it be raw materials, such as fossil gas, oil, or coal, or embodied in manufactured goods. We can work on waste streams, first to reduce and then to make good use of the methane that comes from unavoidable wastes. Lastly we can modify and moderate our agriculture, putting the emphasis on traditional and low-impact farming, rewarding those that show good stewardship for landscape and livestock. But to achieve all of this, we need to be able to monitor the extent of the problem, and the rate of change. We need good data.
The existing systems we have for collecting and reconciling methane data do not allow us to identify with high precision where emissions happen, and in what volumes. Every chance to reinforce our capability to have good, independent, reliable numbers will translate into more focused, better-targeted actions. That is why the UN International Methane Emissions Observatory (IMEO) is a crucial instrument in tackling methane emissions globally, as it plays a fundamental role in addressing the global data gap. It will have a key role in guiding (and undertaking) scientific actions to make methane emissions more transparent, and thereby make those that emit responsible. The EU has been a major partner with the United Nations in establishing the IMEO, providing significant funding. The intention now is to widen the base and attract higher levels of funding so that we can be in a position to monitor global methane emissions properly. Only by joining forces in this way can we enhance our global efforts at reducing emissions of methane, the second-most damaging greenhouse gas, in the fight against climate change.
14 October 2021