The European Commission has opted for a “holistic” approach to address the global warming impact of methane, putting the emphasis on international cooperation first before regulating emissions in sectors like energy and agriculture next year.
The Commission’s methane strategy, unveiled on Wednesday (14 October), shies away from imposing immediate measures forcing energy companies to detect and repair methane leaks along the oil and gas supply chain, even though those are the easiest to tackle.
Because of its high global warming potential, methane is considered a priority under the European Green Deal, which seeks to bring emissions down to net-zero by 2050.
In order to reach Europe’s 2030 climate goal of reducing emissions by 55%, “we would need to reduce methane by one third,” said Kadri Simson, the EU’s energy commissioner.
And although agriculture – in particular cattle farming – is the single biggest emitter of methane, “it’s in the energy sector that we can cut them fastest and cheapest,” Simson said at a press conference on Wednesday.
“The most cost-effective methane emission savings can be achieved in the energy sector,” the Commission says, pointing out that “upstream oil and gas operations generally have a variety of mitigation options that have no net costs, or near zero costs”.
Major oil and gas companies like Shell have already set targets to reduce methane emissions intensity and have called on EU policymakers to set “strong methane regulations” to repair leaks and cut emissions.
Yet, the Commission says it would be too early to enforce legally binding measures at the moment. “We have to be clear that today’s measuring and reporting standards are not exactly accurate,” said an EU official who was briefing journalists ahead of the strategy’s presentation.
Instead, the Commission said it will seek to make methane emissions reporting and verification more systematic at the UN level as a first step, in order to pave the way for regulations to start applying at a later stage.
Down the line, “the Commission will deliver legislative proposals in 2021 on compulsory measurement, reporting, and verification for all energy-related methane emissions and on an obligation to improve leak detection and repair of leaks on all fossil gas infrastructure,” the Commission said in a statement.
This was dismissed as insufficient by Green lawmakers in the European Parliament, who called for clear targets and objectives to reduce methane emissions.
“The European Commission only scratches the surface and limits itself to minor issues like plugging methane leaks and statistics. Counting emissions does not help when the order of the day is to reduce them,” said Jutta Paulus, a German Green MEP.
International methane emissions observatory
Currently, there is no independent international body which collects and verifies methane emissions data.
To fill this gap, the Commission proposes setting up an international methane emissions observatory “tasked with collecting, reconciling, verifying and publishing anthropogenic methane emissions data at a global level,” under the auspices of the United Nations.
The EU’s contribution to this new body could come in the form of data gathered by its Copernicus constellation of earth observation satellites, the Commission suggests.
“First we need better data so that we can address all the leakages that are happening in our neighbouring regions and partners,” Simson said, adding that technical work on this aspect “will start immediately”.
However, further measures related to methane targets or emissions standards require “careful consideration” before they can be envisaged, Commissioner Simson added, insisting on the need to obtain “verified data” at international level as a prerequisite.
“Europe cannot do this alone,” the Commission says. An EU official explained that Europe’s “first course of action will be dialogue” in bilateral discussions with oil and gas producing countries such as the US and Russia, as well as in multinational forums.
“Should that not work out at the speed that we wish, we would also be looking into possible standards or targets in order to incentivise our partners to come along on this road,” the official added.
Aiming for 2030
The timing is indeed already tight, with Europe’s 2030 climate objectives looming large on the horizon. Legislation could come as early as June next year when the European Commission will present a revision of all its energy and climate legislation.
“The Commission will, for instance, assess whether the role of the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED) in preventing and controlling methane emissions could be enhanced,” says the strategy.
At the end of the day, the climate benefits of tackling emissions are clear, officials said.
“We have calculated that if we manage to reduce by 50% the global emission of man-made methane, then we could reduce the temperature rise by 0.18°C. So this is going to be important when we are going to get to 1.5°C maximum,” the official said.
The gas industry applauded the Commission’s cautious approach on methane, saying a broad range of actions is already being undertaken through the Methane Guiding Principles – a voluntary initiative.
“The Commission’s focus on improving data availability and accuracy for methane emissions through both measurements and quantification is the right and responsible action to take,” said James Watson, secretary-general of Eurogas, a trade association.
“Establishing a common EU reporting framework would be paramount to this in the short term and would pave the way for meaningful methane emission reductions” at a later stage, Watson said.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]