November 9, 2022 - The European Union (EU) and US put methane on the map at COP26 in Glasgow — declaring the potent greenhouse gas a threat to Paris Agreement temperature goals and insisting emissions of it must be slashed 30% by 2030.
In the year since, European countries and the US have successfully encouraged more than 120 countries to sign on to a formal methane-cutting pledge, and at the UN climate conference in Sharm El-Sheikh, about 40 of them are set to outline their plans for doing so, according to a senior State Department official.
The US, EU and Japan also are set to announce on Nov. 17 a commitment to clean up methane emissions tied to the extraction and transport of oil and gas. Nations will also deliver updates on their progress in tackling releases from wells during a separate session on Friday. And, the US Environmental Protection Agency is on track to unveil the latest iteration of its plan to regulate methane emissions from the oil and gas sector, following on an outline issued a year ago. And while it isn’t a member of the pledge, China is expected to roll out its own strategy for combating methane.
The moves represent a collective effort to go after a greenhouse gas that is estimated to be 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the atmosphere in the first two decades after it is released. Because methane packs a powerful punch in the near term, reductions can quickly yield results — unlike the longer payoff time for carbon dioxide cuts — and help keep the earth’s temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees Celsius.The strategy was just validated by a report from the United Nations Environment Program and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, which finds that methane cuts in the next decade will keep the planet significantly cooler than focusing solely on deep decarbonisation (which yields big temperature reductions after 2050).
So far, however, the world is going in the opposite direction. A year after the global methane pledge was unveiled, the amount of methane in the atmosphere is increasing at record rates. Last year saw the largest annual increase recorded since the start of global monitoring four decades ago.
That underscores the need to move quickly in translating the global methane pledge and individual country plans into action, said Jonathan Banks, global director of methane pollution prevention at the Clean Air Task Force. “We need to move out of the promises and more towards the action pieces, whether it's sectoral actions or larger actions,” Banks said. The methane pledge, still in its infancy, also can be developed further with more transparency and measurement of progress, he said.Agriculture and livestock are the biggest source of methane from human activity, followed by emissions from the energy sector and waste. Methane, the primary component of natural gas, also can be generated during oil and coal extraction. And scientists say the easiest and cheapest ways to cut back on releases in the short term is in the oil and gas sector.New pledge initiatives will be unveiled during a Nov. 17 ministerial meeting on methane on the sidelines of COP27, said people familiar with the matter who asked not to be named because the session hasn’t been publicly announced. The ministerial will be an opportunity for member countries to outline their progress toward the methane-cutting goal.
Environmental activists and pledge supporters say the initiative has helped spur action by individual countries that might not have happened otherwise. Consider an effort by New Zealand to target agricultural emissions of methane, released during the cows’ digestion process. Australia last month also agreed to join the pledge, after months of wrestling with the idea — and election of a new prime minister who promised a “new era” of climate action. And in June, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador committed to a $2-billion effort by state-owned oil company Petroleos Mexicanos to reducing large-scale flaring, venting and leakage of methane.
Philanthropies also have dedicated some $40 million to the effort this year, and US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry has been pushing development banks and Wall Street to invest in the sector too. A key effort is under way to persuade development banks, aid agencies and other institutions make methane reductions a bigger part of initiatives around agricultural productivity, waste management and reducing food loss. A philanthropic effort to go after methane from the waste sector is also set to be unveiled at the summit.
Kerry stresses the importance of collective action on the issue. “It’s not just individual countries that have to lead,” he said during an Oct. 25 speech at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s in the aggregate of hundreds of different public and private commitments that we will make the most progress. And they are all on the table - front and center - as we head into this global gathering at Sharm El Sheikh.”
The effort is — by design — nonbinding, and the 30% reduction goal is a collective one. Supporters say that was strategic — it certainly helped in enrolling new members last year — as it still creates pressure on signing countries to act. And it’s created an opening for energy and environmental ministers to move forward on the issue, Banks said.
“Without the presidents and prime ministers blessing this, there’s always a political risk for them,” he said. And now, energy attaches and diplomats around the world are briefed up on the methane pledge, so it comes up during visits with presidents. “The ambassador is briefed up on this, and, when they sit down with the president, they’re talking about methane,” Banks said. “I couldn’t say for certain this wouldn’t have happened regardless.”
The pledge created a framework for countries to engage on the topic and make an immediate impact to reduce near-term climate damage and slow the growth rate of global warming, said Matt Watson, who leads the Environmental Defense Fund’s global methane campaign.“Methane operates over years and decades; CO2 operates over decades and centuries. The shape of that curve as we’re trying to meet that no-more-than-1.5 degrees by the end of the century really matters,’’ Watson said. “Everything under that curve is climate damage that affects real people.”
Economic and energy supply considerations amid the war in Ukraine also may be intensifying interest in methane reductions, as experts soberly note that uncaptured methane — wasted globally as emissions into the atmosphere or burned off at oil wells — represent a significant chunk of European energy demand. “It’s enough to meet all the needs of the entire European power sector,” Watson said.
A major question is whether China will join the pledge. A year ago, in Glasgow, the country agreed in a joint declaration with the US to advance a “comprehensive and ambitious national action plan” for curbing its own methane emissions before COP27. Kerry has repeatedly said he hopes China will provide that document at the summit in Sharm el-Sheikh. China is expected to provide that methane strategy, said two people familiar with the matter who asked not to be named. And that, in turn, could be a prelude to joining the pact.
Efforts to recruit Russia, which is the second-largest source of energy-related methane emissions after China, broke down after the invasion of Ukraine, said people familiar with the matter who asked not to be named.
But talks are under way in hopes more countries will enroll — including Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Algeria — said a person familiar with the matter.
The US is set to bolster its national methane action plan with the creation of a fee on the pollution enacted as part of the Inflation Reduction Act in August. Regulators at the Environmental Protection Agency honing a rule targeting oil and gas sector emissions have been weighing potential options for strengthening the measure — potentially by banning flaring of natural gas at oil wells or including more frequent inspections at wells that yield just a trickle of crude but can be an outsize source of methane.
Now, as the pledge enters its second year a major challenge will be building the initiative so it’s bigger — and more binding — on countries that make the commitment. And while the first year’s focus was on methane from fossil fuels that represent the cheapest near-term opportunity for reductions, environmental advocates say new funding and programs should propel efforts to pare emissions from the agricultural and waste sectors.
“This year it was about engagement,” Watson said. “Going into next year, particularly leading into COP28, is where we will start to see a lot of national methane action plans materialized, investment commitments being made and country-level targets being set.”