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Can the UAE help get a planet-saving methane deal at COP28?

FILE – Flares burn off methane and other hydrocarbons at an oil and gas facility in Lenorah, Texas, Oct. 15, 2021. The U.N. Environment Programme said Friday, Nov. 11, that the new Methane Alert and Response System — MARS for short — is intended to help companies act on major emissions sources but also provide data in a transparent and independent way. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

Environmental advocates are rightfully skeptical that the head of a national oil company can credibly steer the parties at the upcoming UN climate summit COP28 to the strong climate mitigation needed to meet the climate emergency, especially one that is planning a major oil and gas expansion that is inconsistent with the 2015 Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-Industrial levels.

What can the United Arab Emirates, led by Sultan Al Jaber, Ph.D., the CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, realistically deliver to keep the planet safe as head of COP 28 this fall? There’s a lot riding on Al Jaber, and many environmental advocates don’t believe he can deliver.

But… maybe he can. Maybe he can lead the charge to cut methane — the fastest way to cool the planet in time to avoid having self-amplifying feedback loops push the planet past the series of tipping points that are just ahead. At COP28, maybe the UAE can bring along other state-owned oil giants, who have opposed climate action and lay the foundation for a global methane agreement.

This wouldn’t satisfy the many climate advocates who consider efforts to reduce methane leaks from the fossil fuel sector a moral hazard that could extend the life of the industry that is killing the planet. These advocates want, as we all should, to achieve 100 percent clean energy as soon as possible and create a just clean energy transition to a zero-emissions future.

The challenge is that as fast as we’re expanding clean energy, it is not yet replacing the fossil fuel energy system. The legacy industry is not going to be pushed off the stage until there is enough clean energy to replace it. How fast can this transition happen? Under the most optimistic scenario, this will take until 2040. Public pressure and growing litigation might hasten that. But state-owned companies control nearly three-quarters of global crude oil and gas production; and an estimated 75 percent of the oil and gas industry’s global methane emissions come from the countries they operate in, according to the International Energy Agency.

Even if we succeed in transitioning to clean energy and net-zero emissions by 2040, a tremendously ambitious goal, our continuing emissions will continue the self-amplifying feedback loops where the planet warms itself and soon sends us careening past a series of irreversible tipping points in the next decade that we may not be able to recover from.

Importantly, even the most aggressive decarbonization will only avoid 0.1 degree C of warming at mid-century. This is because much of fossil fuel CO2 is co-emitted with cooling sulfate aerosols, and when the sulfates fall out, which they do in a matter of days once a fossil power plant shuts down, this unmasks existing warming. The result: net warming for the first decade. We’ve got to do it, but the deceive-and-delay tactics of the fossil fuel industry have left us too little time for decarbonization on its own to limit the near-term temperature.

In contrast, cutting methane can avoid nearly 0.3 degrees C of warming before 2050 — three times more than cutting CO2. It’s the only way we currently know of to slow near-term warming.

Cutting methane is the near-term sprint we need to win in this critical decade, while cutting CO2 is a mid-term marathon. The real moral hazard we face is failing to solve climate change in time — failing to move fast enough to win the sprint and prevent the devastating impacts that will hit us when we start passing tipping points.

The fossil fuel sector is ripe for action today, with more than 100 oil and gas companies, including those in the Oil and Gas Methane Partnership, already committed to reducing their aggregate upstream oil and gas methane emissions. Many companies are also supporting Zero Routine Flaring by 2030. These actions make economic sense since half of methane mitigation can be done at negative cost, leaving more product to sell in tight markets.

Right now, 150 countries have also committed to reducing human-caused methane emissions by at least 30 percent by 2030 under the Global Methane Pledge. In support of the pledge, this week the United States and the EU Energy Council noted in their joint statement “the need to develop effective global schemes to limit leakage, venting, and flaring,” and the joint progress developing international standards for leak detection and quantification of methane emissions.”

But the pledge remains voluntary, and world’s largest methane emitters — Russia, China and India — have yet to commit to it. Because cutting methane is now the single most important strategy for slowing near-term warming, it is essential to move from a pledge to strong sectoral commitments building toward a mandatory methane agreement.

Human-caused methane emissions come from three sectors — fossil fuels (35 percent), waste (20 percent) and agriculture (40 percent). Oil, gas and coal should be the first sector covered by a global methane agreement. (Methane mitigation is already becoming a key measure of near-term oil and gas industry climate change efforts.) The waste and agriculture sectors would come later under separate protocols.

Al Jaber should use COP28 to forge an agreement to mitigate methane in the oil and gas sector to the maximum extent possible in the shortest time. This requires getting the state-owned energy companies on board with climate solutions, as U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry recently noted. COP28 presents the UAE and global climate community with the opportunity.

The UAE is in a unique position to bring other nationally owned oil and gas companies together in support of methane emissions reductions as a first step toward a sectoral agreement on methane. Such action by national oil and gas exporting companies is crucial to show a willingness to take climate change action, as well as to compete with private sector companies and countries like the United States and European Union that are taking aggressive methane mitigation action.

Lower methane emissions from the oil and gas sector will increasingly have a competitive advantage in the global marketplace as importers grow more concerned about the lifecycle emissions of their imports. Moreover, nationally owned companies have in recent years increasingly turned to private equity markets for capital; as global investors begin to prioritize investments with low emissions, the lifecycle emissions of nationally owned oil and gas companies will be under increased scrutiny and could find their financing constrained if they do not reduce emissions in keeping with publicly traded private sector companies. And an announcement of an “Dubai Methane Fund” also would be welcome, as would help with other methane sectors, and funding the research and development needed for methane removal technology.

But as Al Jaber said recently, “The oil and gas sector needs to up its game, do more and do it faster.” He added, “Let’s aim to reach net-zero methane emissions by 2030.”

We agree. The UAE and all nations should make a binding international agreement on methane reductions from the oil and gas sector a key outcome of COP 28.

Paul Bledsoe is professorial lecturer at American University’s Center for Environmental Policy and a former Clinton White House climate official.

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

Tags climate action Climate change COP28 Fossil fuels Global warming Natural gas oil and gas

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