Methane, a threat and an opportunity

The rapid growth of methane emissions has alarmed scientists, but their short lifespan means cuts would rapidly reduce the gas’s contribution to warming
<p>A lot of methane is emitted while “flaring”, or burning waste gas, during fossil fuel extraction. In June this year, 10 countries and the EU pledged to end routine flaring by 2030. (Image: Zuma / Alamy)</p>

A lot of methane is emitted while “flaring”, or burning waste gas, during fossil fuel extraction. In June this year, 10 countries and the EU pledged to end routine flaring by 2030. (Image: Zuma / Alamy)

Until relatively recently, the focus of climate change mitigation has overwhelmingly been on carbon dioxide. But awareness of another greenhouse gas has increasingly come to the fore, one which poses both huge threats and opportunities in the fight against climate change.

Methane matters because over a 20-year period it is 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the atmosphere.

Concentrations in the atmosphere have more than doubled since pre-industrial times, and are increasing faster now than at any time since the 1980s. In fact, methane emissions account for around one-third of net warming to date.

Methane also contributes to ground-level ozone, which is a dangerous air pollutant blamed for half a million premature deaths a year globally, and even suppresses growth of crops and vegetation.

However, because methane only lives in the atmosphere for a decade or so, cutting emissions can reduce its temperature contribution in a rapid timeframe. This is in contrast to CO2, which remains in the atmosphere for 300–1,000 years.

This is where the massive opportunity comes in – action taken now can quickly reduce atmospheric concentrations and therefore also the rate of overall warming. Scientists and campaigners now see methane mitigation as one of the best chances to limit warming this decade. Some, including the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), argue that achieving the global target to keep temperature rise within 1.5C above pre-industrial levels at a reasonable cost will be impossible without reducing methane emissions by 40–45% by 2030. Methane emission reductions could prevent 0.3C temperature rise by the 2040s, UNEP estimates.

The lowest hanging fruit is the fossil fuel sector

Methane is emitted naturally from sources such as wetlands and wild animals. The vast majority of human-caused emissions comes from three sectors: fossil fuels, agriculture and waste. Oil and gas extraction, processing and distribution accounts for 23%, while coal mining is responsible for a further 12%. Landfills and wastewater comprise around 20%. In agriculture, emissions from manure and enteric fermentation from livestock represent roughly 32%, and rice cultivation 8%.

Experts are adamant that the knowledge and technology needed to curb methane already exists, and that much of it is low or negative cost. For example, in the waste sector, food and animal waste can be turned into energy, while methane at landfill sites can be converted into natural gas. As much as 60% of measures targeted at the waste sector have either negative or low cost.

Agriculture is more complex. Rice cultivation is a large source of methane, but can be reduced with no loss of yield by limiting the flooding of paddies. However, the potential to cut emissions from livestock is less certain, as it relies more on behavioural changes such as a reduction in meat consumption, according to UNEP.

A cattle ranch in the Brazilian Amazon. Livestock farming is responsible for about a third of human-caused global methane emissions. (Image: Alamy)

The lowest hanging fruit is the fossil fuel sector. Not only are the majority of necessary measures low or negative cost, but implementing them could also bring the sector significant profits through the resulting increase in gas available to be sold, bringing an energy security incentive to act on methane emissions.

In fact, if countries that currently export natural gas to the EU were to eliminate non-emergency “flaring” – the burning of waste gas during fossil fuel mining – and reduce methane emissions from oil and gas operations, gas supply equivalent to almost one-third of Russian gas exports to the EU in 2021 could be made available, the International Energy Agency (IEA) calculated.

Global Methane Pledge

Methane reduction was brought firmly into the spotlight at the UN’s COP26 climate negotiations in November 2021 when the Global Methane Pledge was officially launched by US president Joe Biden and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. More than 120 countries representing more than half of global methane emissions from human activities are now signed up to the pledge, which commits them to slash their methane emissions by 30% by 2030, and agree to stronger reporting standards.

While signatories can reduce emissions from any source, the pledge is prioritising the fossil fuel sector. In June, the EU and US announced the “energy pathway” extension to the pledge with nine other inaugural members, under which “routine flaring” should be ended by 2030.

The pledge has done much to raise the profile of methane cuts in the fight against climate change, according to experts. As with all political commitments, it needs to be implemented, but it gives agency to those pushing for action from governments and companies operating in the jurisdictions that have signed it, says Manfredi Caltagirone, who leads UNEP’s work on methane emissions in the energy sector, and is acting head of the International Methane Emissions Observatory (IMEO).

Felicia Ruiz, director of international methane partnerships and outreach at the Clean Air Task Force (CATF), a US NGO which has been pushing for methane emission cuts for more than 20 years, says: “I’ve definitely seen a lot of change, and world leaders are finally paying attention. The pledge has given the political space for all of these countries to come together to make truly significant progress.”

However, much more needs to be done, she says, including signatories developing national methane action plans that include tangible reduction policies drawn up ahead of the COP27 climate negotiations in November. 

The pledge also needs to increase the number of countries signed up, she says. Some of the world’s largest emitters of methane – including China, Russia and Australia – have not signed. “It really is a collective effort and the more countries we can get to join this initiative, the stronger it will be,” she adds.

Joe Biden at COP26 under a map of countries signed up to the global methane pledge
Joe Biden walks past a map of countries signed up to the Global Methane Pledge at COP26 in Glasgow last year (Image: Kevin Lamarque / Reuters via Alamy)

Marcelo Mena, chief executive of the Global Methane Hub, an alliance of more than 20 philanthropies and organisations with a goal to reduce global methane emissions by more than 30% by the year 2030, points out that China has a bilateral agreement with the US that includes action on methane. However, cooperation has been frozen since August due to disagreement between the two over Taiwan.

India is also not a signatory to the pledge, but is undertaking significant work to divert organic waste from landfill, and reducing methane from the dairy sector, Mena says. “The pledge is an important signal, but what matters more is actual emissions reduction,” he says.

The US has announced plans to slash methane emissions from oil and gas extraction and gas distribution infrastructure, largely through new rules. Its Inflation Reduction Act, which was agreed in August, will establish a fee on gas wasted to the atmosphere such as through flaring, creating an incentive for operators to reduce their methane emissions earlier than mandated by upcoming new regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The European Commission meanwhile published its methane strategy in 2020, covering action in the energy, agriculture and waste sectors. Last year, it announced further proposals on the fossil fuel and biomethane sectors, including obligatory standards of methane emissions measuring, reporting and verification across the EU, and leak detection and repair, and a ban on venting and routine flaring.

However, the commission’s proposals have been criticised for being weak on methane emissions from imported fossil fuels. Though the commission has outlined measures on transparency and visibility of such emissions, and leaves open the possibility for future action on them, it should fully address them in the legislation, according to CATF.

The EU’s methane emissions from imported oil and gas in 2020 was 10 million tonnes. Taken together with the methane emissions within the EU that year, the EU’s total responsible methane emissions in the oil and gas sector was 14 million tonnes, according to the International Energy Agency’s Global Methane Tracker.

Data gap

One problem that has plagued efforts to reduce methane is out-of-date or non-transparent data from both governments and companies on the source and quantity of emissions, which are often based on estimates rather than actual measurements.

An increasing body of research has highlighted data discrepancies in methane emissions reported by governments and industry. These include a finding by US scientists that actual emissions from the country’s oil and gas supply chain were approximately 60% higher than those reported by the government.

Research by the Clean Air Task Force found more than 450 sources of methane across 12 different EU countries, where previously policymakers and industry denied there was a problem. And earlier this year, the IEA’s methane tracker revealed that global methane emissions from the energy sector are about 70% greater than the amount national governments have officially reported.

However, hope is high that this situation could soon be turned around. Methane can be seen from space, meaning that satellites can be used to detect and quantify emissions, from major leaks over a large area, to small leaks at the facility level.

Infrared imaging of methane emissions at the Elk Hills oil and gas field in southern California (Source: Carbon Mapper, CC BY-SA 4.0)

New satellites with higher resolution, greater coverage and more sensitive detection thresholds are being developed, and multiple projects are about to become operational. These include the NGO the Environmental Defense Fund’s MethaneSAT, which will detect both concentrated point sources and sources of emissions over a wider area to quantify total emissions; earth observation company Planet’s Carbon Mapper which will help identify methane “super-emitters”; and a $100 million methane satellite monitoring project launched by the US state of California.

Information from all these initiatives will be brought together on the International Methane Emissions Observatory (IMEO) platform, launched by UNEP. Data reported by oil and gas companies signed up to the OGMP 2.0 reporting framework run by UNEP – which represents 30% of global production – will also be available on the platform.

Making methane visible

For the first time, validated, reliable and measurement-based data on the sources and quantities of emissions will be publicly available to companies, governments, investors, campaign groups and local communities.

“The idea is for this to be a ‘system of systems’, so it relies on the integration of the data rather than a specific satellite. Each of the measurements at source level gives us a piece of the larger picture – the objective of IMEO is to bring these pieces together to make the whole visible,” explains Caltagirone.

The CATF is enthusiastic about the new data, says Ruiz. “Actual emissions information will help all of us get a better handle on mitigation. It’s a cliché, but it’s really hard to mitigate what you can’t measure,” she says.

A couple of years ago, no one talked about methane, and now we’ll be able to click on a website and see it from space
Marcelo Mena, Global Methane Hub

“The general public will have a much better understanding of emissions in their communities, especially those who live near oil and gas facilities. It will help improve overall industry accountability, because it will be hard to hide from the fact that these emissions are everywhere,” she adds.

Marcelo Mena is also excited about the possibilities. “A couple of years ago, no one talked about methane, and now we’ll be able to click on a website and see it from space.”

His organisation plans to use the information to force methane-emitting companies to change, either through pressure from communities affected by local fossil fuel plants or landfill sites, or from investors seeking disclosure on greenhouse gases.

Whether these multiple efforts are enough to slash methane in the timeframe needed remains to be seen. Some are sceptical.

Lauren Pagel, policy director at US campaign group Earthworks points to various loopholes in US regulation. These include the fact that national methane emission standards for oil and gas cover new facilities only, when most of the pollution comes from existing plants, and that implementation of the rules requires manpower and resources that are lacking nationwide.

Furthermore, its own research using optical gas imaging cameras has found that technologies designed to control emissions are not effective. “There’s no such thing as pollution-free oil and gas extraction, even with the best rules in place,” she says.

However, Mena is optimistic, since so many emission measures are low or negative cost, and also help make countries more resilient, for example, reducing food waste and promoting energy security.

Ruiz sees much promise in the many voluntary initiatives and the power of new data, while stressing that policies which mandate methane reduction will also be needed.

She says: “There’s a lot of work to be done, and we have to do it, or we’re going to start hitting irreversible climate tipping points. But I have a lot of hope that it’s not just the flavour of the day, but a true movement, and world leaders are taking notice.”