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COP27: A global methane agreement can prevent climate catastrophe

FILE – Flares burn off methane and other hydrocarbons at an oil and gas facility in Lenorah, Texas, Friday, Oct. 15, 2021. Climate scientists have found that methane emissions from the oil and gas industry are far worse than what companies are reporting, despite claims by some major firms that they’ve reduced their emissions. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

All the parties participating in the climate negotiations in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt this week and next would do well to remember that today’s climate emergency is about two basic concepts: time and temperature. It’s too hot, and we’ve left ourselves too little time to slow and eventually reverse the accelerating increase in temperature that humans are causing.

At this late date, cutting fossil fuel emissions by shifting to clean energy can’t cut warming fast enough to slow the self-reinforcing feedbacks that are accelerating us down the “highway to climate hell,” to borrow a phrase from UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’s opening speech in Egypt. 

As important as decarbonization will be post-2050, it is essential to couple it with a strategy to immediately cut methane and the other short-lived super climate pollutants, as this can avoid four times more warming at mid-century than decarbonization alone can. Cutting the super climate pollutants is the only known way to take our foot off the accelerator to give us a fighting chance to slow the self-reinforcing feedbacks, avoid tipping points and keep the planet from the existential risk of “Hothouse Earth.”

The current temperature is 1.1 to 1.2 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial times, and we’re cruising along the highway to hell to add 50 percent more to this in the next decade. Even with today’s warming, we’re seeing punishing climate impacts all over the world. And this isn’t the worst.

The impacts of adding 50 percent more warming in the next decade will be far worse than 50 percent more punishment than we’re experiencing today. Climate impacts are not going to continue scaling in a linear way, where a bit more warming causes a bit more impact. Rather, a bit more warming will further accelerate the self-reinforcing feedback mechanisms where the Earth warms itself beyond what we humans have started — and this will push the planet past a series of irreversible tipping points with impacts that are likely to be catastrophic.

The Arctic provides an illustration. Historically, the Arctic region has functioned as a great white shield reflecting incoming solar radiation safely back to space. But the current rate of Arctic warming — which is four times the global average, and seven times faster in some areas — is melting the reflective sea ice. We’ve melted half of the extent of Arctic sea ice, and are down to just a few percent of the strong multi-year ice. When we melt the remaining sea ice, we’ll add the equivalent of 25 years of current emissions, around 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide. The loss of the reflective land-based snow and ice could double this. And the Arctic is just one of more than a dozen natural systems, which may be turned from net warming inhibitors to net warming contributors.

Cutting methane and the other short-lived climate pollutants can reduce projected warming in the Arctic by two-thirds and the rate of global warming by half. (The other short-lived climate pollutants are black carbon soot, tropospheric — or ground level — ozone and hydrofluorocarbon refrigerants, collectively known as super climate pollutants.) Combining this fast mitigation sprint with the decarbonization marathon also would help address the ethical issues of intergenerational equity by giving societies urgently needed time to adapt to unavoidable changes and build resilience.

The governments of the world have already started reducing hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) refrigerants through the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer. Reducing the HFCs has the potential to avoid up to 0.5 degrees Celsius of warming by end of century, using the treaty widely acknowledged to be the best environmental treaty the world has ever produced.

The 1987 Montreal Protocol, with its universal membership of all UN countries, earned its reputation by solving the first great threat to the global atmosphere — that chlorofluorocarbons and other refrigerants were destroying the stratospheric ozone layer — and also by contributing more for climate protection that any other agreement.  The latest analysis calculates that the Montreal Protocol will avoid 2.5 degrees Celsius of warming by end of century. Nearly 1 degree Celsius is from repairing the stratospheric ozone layer and preventing excess ultraviolet radiation from damaging forests and other carbon sinks. The other 1.7 degrees Celsius of avoided warming is from reducing the refrigerant gases.

The next target for avoiding near-term warming is to cut the super pollutant methane, which increased faster last year than any time since systematic record-keeping began in 1983. Reducing the methane emissions that humans cause can avoid nearly 0.3 degrees Celsius of warming by 2040s, making this the single biggest and fastest way to slow warming in the critical next two decades, according to the Climate and Clean Air Coalition.

Last year at the COP26 UN climate negotiations in Glasgow, the U.S. and EU led an effort to launch the Global Methane Pledge. With nearly 130 countries and growing, the pledge is encouraging a reduction of at least 30 percent of human-caused methane emissions by 2030.  

Yet, the Global Methane Pledge is voluntary, and three of the world’s largest methane emitters — Russia, China and India — have yet to commit to the pledge or to make meaningful commitments to cutting methane, although in Glasgow last year China reached a separate agreement with the U.S. that included efforts to cut methane. Because cutting methane is now the single most important strategy for slowing near-term warming, it is essential to start moving from a pledge to sectoral commitments building to a mandatory methane agreement. The Montreal Protocol provides the inspiration and some of the architecture that can be borrowed for a methane agreement, including how the protocol balances the North-South dynamic and implements the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities.

Human caused methane emissions comes from three sectors — fossil fuels (35 percent), waste (20 percent), and agriculture (40 percent). Each sector may require a separate protocol. The fossil fuel sector is ripe for action today, and several oil and gas companies, including those in the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative — Aramco, BP, Chevron, CNPC, Eni, Equinor, ExxonMobil, Occidental, Petrobras, Repsol, Shell and TotalEnergieshave committed to reducing their aggregate upstream oil and gas methane emissions to well below 0.2 percent by 2025 from a 2017 baseline of 0.3 percent. They also are supporting Zero Routine Flaring by 2030. Natural gas (really “fossil gas”) is mostly methane. Half of methane mitigation can be done at negative cost, leaving more product to sell in a tight market.

The U.S. Inflation Reduction Act signed into law in August provides a framework that combines methane regulations with a fee and may be a useful model for a global methane agreement. The International Monetary Fund also just published a report on cutting methane, suggesting a global fee.

The waste sector can be addressed next, followed by agriculture, where policy often includes subsidies to support new approaches. For the waste and agriculture sectors, a dedicated funding mechanism will be needed, and should be funded by a fee from the fossil fuel sector. The Montreal Protocol’s funding mechanism is a useful model, where the wealthier developed countries pay the agreed incremental cost for developing countries to comply.

Finally, 40 to 50 percent of methane emissions are from natural sources, including tropical wetlands, peatlands and Arctic permafrost, all of which appear to be increasing as part of self-reinforcing climate feedbacks. There are promising strategies for tackling these emissions by removing methane from the atmosphere faster than the natural cycle, justifying a robust research and development effort.

In the face of the climate emergency, global leaders should build on the success of the Montreal Protocol and use this powerful sectoral agreement as inspiration to develop a global methane agreement as quickly as possible to prevent a climate catastrophe.

Durwood Zaelke is president of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development (IGSD) in Washington, D.C. and Paris, as well as an adjunct professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. 

Paul Bledsoe is strategic adviser at the Progressive Policy Institute and professorial lecturer at American University. He served on the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Clinton.

Gabrielle Dreyfus, Ph.D., is chief scientist at IGSD and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

Tags Antonio Guterres Climate change cop27 emissions Global warming Methane Montreal Protocol

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