The world must urgently cut its emissions of methane to rein in climate change, a UN report said Thursday (6 May) raising pressure on European Union policymakers who are drafting the bloc’s first methane regulations targeting fossil fuels.
Because methane is a particularly potent greenhouse gas, tackling emissions offers the speediest option for curbing climate change, according to the United Nations’ Global Methane Assessment.
The world could cut methane emissions driven by human activity by up to 45% by 2030 using currently available technologies, the report said. That would avoid nearly 0.3 degree Celsius of global warming by the 2040s.
Failing to tackle methane, however, would push global climate goals out of reach, it added.
“If we want to reduce the rate of warming in the near term, methane is the way to do it,” said Johan Kuylenstierna, research leader at the Stockholm Environment Institute and one of more than 20 experts who authored the report.
Globally, methane emissions from human activities are rising faster now than at any time since records began in the 1980s, the report said. That is in sharp contrast to the 40-45% cut in methane emissions that scientists say is needed by 2030 to limit global warming to safe levels, alongside steep cuts in carbon dioxide emissions.
Methane is the second-largest contributor to global warming after CO2. The gas has a higher heat-trapping potential than CO2, but breaks down in the atmosphere faster. That means curbing methane emissions in the near future could have a big impact on slowing global warming.
While national climate change policies generally target CO2 emissions, scrutiny of methane is growing as governments ramp up efforts to meet climate goals.
EU policymakers hope to set an example this year by proposing regulations to limit methane emissions – the first time it has done this in the energy sector. Those regulations will likely include forcing oil and gas companies to find and fix methane leaks in their infrastructure.
Agriculture is the largest source of Europe’s methane emissions, followed by waste sources like landfills and then fossil fuels, according to the report by the UN Environment Programme and the Climate & Clean Air Coalition (CCAC).
The EU is also the world’s biggest importer of natural gas. If Brussels applied its regulations to foreign suppliers, including Russia, this could have economic ripple effects throughout international supply chains.
Last year, the European Commission said it would consider setting methane targets or standards on imported fossil fuels if other countries did not act.
Global meat consumption
Meanwhile, advances in satellite technology have allowed scientists to pinpoint methane sources, which can allow policymakers to target those emissions directly, said Duke University climate scientist Drew Shindell, the lead author of the report.
Policy action like that planned by the EU “needs to spread around the world so that more and more places have specific targets for methane,” Shindell added.
The United States is also drafting methane legislation, expected to be proposed in September. The US Senate last week voted to restore Obama-era methane rules around oil production and processing.
Globally, agriculture accounts for 40% of methane emissions from human activities, while fossil fuels contribute 35% and waste sources such as landfills account for 20%, the report said.
The biggest opportunities for cutting emissions this decade are in the fossil fuel industry, it added, with actions such as plugging infrastructure leaks being relatively easy and low-cost.
By contrast, tackling emissions from agriculture, for example by reducing global meat consumption, is considered harder because it requires changes to people’s behaviour and lifestyles.
Methane and CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere both surged last year, even as global economic activity sputtered amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said last month.
To climate scientists, those trends were worrying.
“We can’t kid ourselves that we can solve the climate problem with just methane alone,” said NOAA physical scientist Lori Bruhwiler, based in Boulder, Colorado. “We have to confront CO2.”