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Our best shot to slow climate change now: Cut methane

Our best shot to slow climate change now: Cut methane
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Locked down for a full year now, there was at least one bright spot: The clear drop in air pollution in 2020. But now there’s even a blot on that. This week the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that methane, the second biggest driver of global warming and a major contributor to air pollution, spiked upward last year with the highest growth rate in NOAA’s 37-year record. What’s going on?

Methane is different. Unlike carbon dioxide or most air pollution, methane is not a byproduct of burning fossil fuels. While the fossil fuel sector is a major emitter of methane, this only happens when systems work poorly and leak, or when methane is deliberately vented or flared. Large emissions of methane also come from waste and agriculture, parts of the economy that did not slow for the pandemic. 

Methane differs not only in its sources but in its impacts. Methane is an important contributor to the formation of ozone near the Earth’s surface. That ozone is known to increase the risk of hospitalizations and early deaths. Ozone also damages plants, so that an increase in methane emissions will result in reduced crop yields and reduced forest growth (and the carbon uptake that comes with that). That’s in addition to the damage to people, ecosystems and the rest of our planet from methane’s role in climate change.

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Last year’s growth in methane is alarming, but methane’s differences also provide opportunities. Within the fossil fuel sector, the technology already exists to dramatically reduce emissions. Satellites show us huge plumes of methane coming from oil and gas fields in the U.S. and oil producing post-Soviet states, whereas other major producers like Saudi Arabia show almost none. So, we know releases can be avoided. Methane can also be captured from coal mining and landfills. As methane is the main component of natural gas, capturing and using it is profitable.

Reduced emissions from both fossil fuel facilities and waste also improve local health, which will predominantly benefit the disadvantaged who live near such places. Within agriculture, improving animal health is a key step to reducing methane in many developing countries, whereas in wealthy countries decreasing consumption of cattle-based foodstuffs to healthy levels would benefit both people and planet. Investments in methane reductions are thus multipliers for economic growth — they generate jobs, provide energy and improve health, all while addressing the climate crisis and inequalities. 

This month, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) will release a global assessment of the benefits and costs of mitigating methane emissions. The assessment shows that a concerted global effort could greatly lower methane emissions this decade, with the majority of the solutions having low or even negative costs — the measures pay for themselves quickly by saving money. The benefits that would come from reducing human-caused methane by 40- to 45 percent by 2030, a level consistent with the Paris Agreement’s goal to keep warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, are also quantified and they’re enormous. It would avoid nearly 0.3 degree Celsius of global warming by the 2040s. Each year from 2030 onward this reduction would prevent more than 250,000 premature deaths, more than 750,000 asthma-related hospital visits, more than 70 billion hours of lost labor from extreme heat and more than 25 million tonnes of crop losses globally.

As we emerge from the health and economic disaster of COVID-19 while continuing to live through a slow-motion climate disaster, taking advantage of the opportunity to improve the health of people, ecosystems, the economy and the planet by reducing methane is essential. Cutting methane is not a substitute for the essential need to move to a net-zero carbon dioxide world,  but because it has relatively short lifetime in the atmosphere, cutting methane is the strongest lever we have to slow climate change over the next 25 years. Mobilizing globally to reduce methane while building back from COVID-19 can boost the economy, improve public health and help set us on a course to a more sustainable, cooperative world.

With its rapid effects on both health and climate and its intrinsic economic value, methane is indeed different. Last year set records with the highest methane growth rate and lowest economic growth in decades, but we have the opportunity to change these together. Committing to no new fossil fuel infrastructure and an ambitious 45 percent reduction in methane emissions by 2030 would be a valuable investment in the future of our people and planet.

Inger Andersen is the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme.

Drew Shindell is Nicholas professor of Earth Sciences at Duke University and is chairman of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition’s Scientific Advisory Panel. He chaired the forthcoming CCAC UNEP Global Methane Assessment.