UN climate talks in Egypt must urgently focus on methane
In about a month, the global climate community will descend upon Egypt for the next round of annual climate change talks convened by the United Nations. At the same time, much of Europe will be bearing up in the face of a very tough winter for energy security.
Climate diplomats from around the world will spend two weeks trying to turn last year’s Glasgow climate pact — which promises a 45 percent cut in carbon emissions by 2030 and net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 — from words into action.
If history is any guide, most of the negotiations will focus on carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas emitted by cars, power plants, factories and other industrial sources. But if the delegates in Egypt are serious about taking swift action by 2030, they must give another greenhouse gas some urgent attention — methane.
You probably know methane by another name — natural gas. When used as a fuel and an industrial feedstock, methane plays a critical role in the energy, manufacturing, residential and commercial sectors of the economy.
For example, the U.S. economy’s rapid shift away from coal since the late 2000s would not have been possible without increased production of natural gas. It emits half as much carbon dioxide as coal and is a much better complement for variable sources of electricity like wind and solar.
But not all the methane that is produced by oil and gas facilities gets used by a power plant, a factory, a business or a household. Some of it escapes into the atmosphere, due to leaks at the well site, in long-distance pipelines or in the utility lines that bring natural gas to homes and businesses.
Methane isn’t only an oil and gas industry concern, of course. Livestock operations in the agricultural sector are also a major source of methane. So are coal mines and garbage dumps.
Taken together, methane emissions from these sources are a big problem for the climate. Because while the volume of methane released every year is much lower than the amount of carbon dioxide, methane really packs a punch.
A ton of methane traps much more heat than a ton of carbon dioxide — about 80 times more over a 20-year period, in fact. For that reason, it’s estimated that methane is responsible for 30 percent of the warming the atmosphere has experienced since the Industrial Revolution.
But in this bad news, there is also good news. Because it’s such a potent greenhouse gas, a serious global effort to reduce methane emissions could take us a giant step closer toward stabilizing the climate.
What’s more, methane reduction strategies would not require massive structural changes in the economy — and they could buy the world more time to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from cars, trucks, airplanes, factories and the power grid.
Almost a year ago, more than 100 countries recognized the value in aggressively tackling the methane problem, setting a goal of reducing global methane emissions 30 percent by 2030. Led by the United States and the European Union, the Global Methane Pledge covers 70 percent of the world economy.
In remarks to attendees of the Global Methane, Climate, and Clean Air Forum in Washington, D.C. this month, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry emphasized the need to ramp up financing to achieve methane reduction goals. He also said achieving the goals of the Global Methane Pledge would deliver more than 0.2 degrees Celsius of cooling within decades.
We have the tools to do this. Congress recently passed a clean energy bill that imposes a high fee on methane emissions from oil and gas operators, incentivizing conservation. In parallel, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is drafting regulations to reduce methane emissions.
New technologies such as satellites and sensor networks are making it ever more cost-effectively to detect large methane leaks and promptly repair them. And cutting-edge data science work is making these measurements actionable for businesses and regulators.
Methane leaks are also a tremendous waste of an important resource. This winter, European countries will be seeking as much natural gas as they can get their hands on.
When gas prices globally are breaking records and hurting consumers, every ton of methane prevented from entering the atmosphere is a tone of methane that can be consumed.
Global leaders can also take advantage of increased market and investor interest in differentiated natural gas products. Whether utilities or importing countries, major consumers of natural gas care about the climate impact of their supply chains.
Developing a transparent and trusted framework for methane emissions accounting in global natural gas trade can help further accelerate emissions reductions. This can hasten a beneficial “race-to-the-bottom” in addressing methane.
For Europe in particular, cutting back on methane leaks also fulfills a major security imperative, because of natural gas shortages triggered by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Putin’s decision to throttle gas exports to Europe, in hopes of dividing the NATO alliance, makes leak detection and reduction all the more critical as the continent prepares for the winter heating season.
These converging factors — environmental, economic and geopolitical — make a strong case for putting methane emissions front and center during this year’s climate talks. The steps needed to reduce methane emissions, which can more than pay for themselves, make too much sense to ignore.
Morgan Bazilian is the director of the Payne Institute for Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines.
Arvind Ravikumar directs the Sustainable Energy Transition Lab at the University of Texas at Austin.
Simon Lomax is the Payne Institute for Public Policy’s editor-at-large.
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