One of the top agenda items at the 27th annual UN Conference of the Parties (COP27) climate meeting in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt—now in its second week—is how to implement the Global Methane Pledge launched at last year’s COP26 negotiations in Glasgow, Scotland. The pledge is a voluntary agreement to reduce global methane emissions by 30 percent below 2020 levels by 2030. To date, more than 130 countries have signed onto the pledge.
It is urgent to implement the Methane Pledge as soon as possible given methane, a potent heat-trapping gas, already has devastating effects on human health and the climate, which will continue for years to come. Although methane doesn’t linger very long in the atmosphere, increasing methane levels are particularly bad news because it packs a big punch. It is 80 times stronger than carbon dioxide (CO2) at trapping heat on short timescales. But its short lifetime in the atmosphere is also a reason for hope. If policymakers can reduce short-term, high-impact heat-trapping gases such as methane we can limit warming and keep the Paris Agreement goals within reach. Of course, we also will have to make sharp cuts in CO2 emissions, the main driver of climate change.
The planet has already warmed 1.1 degrees Celsius, and about 30 percent of that warming is due to methane. A report by the World Meteorological Organization, released last month, showed that methane levels in the atmosphere are continuing to climb to new highs, reaching 262 percent of preindustrial levels. Worse yet, the increase in methane is accelerating over time and part of this rise may be due to the onset of climate feedbacks, in which warming induces further warming even without increases in heat-trapping emissions.
Recent science shows that reducing methane could avert 0.25 degrees C of warming by the middle of the century, and as much as 0.8 degrees C by 2100. This presents one of the most promising avenues for keeping the global goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C within reach. But governments must put policy measures into place immediately to be effective. The same research warns that delaying methane mitigation or pursuing it slowly could result in more overall warming happening at a faster rate. That is where the urgency of Methane Pledge implementation comes in: Nations must look to scientifically informed, justice-centered solutions to reduce methane now and keep the goal of 1.5 degrees C achievable.
Methane Emissions Tracking is Becoming More Sophisticated
To reduce methane emissions, we need to know where they are coming from, which isn’t as straightforward as it may sound. Methane emissions come from two main sources: fossil fuels and agriculture—primarily animal-based agriculture. Most emissions reduction plans should focus on those two industries. While scientists understand what sectors methane is coming from, discerning the exact locations is trickier.
Fortunately, the science of tracking methane is getting better every day, and several new tools for understanding methane sources were released during COP27 with more on the way. To help track super emitters, the UN Environment Program’s International Methane Emissions Observatory has launched the Methane Alert and Response System (MARS). This new satellite system is designed to identify large methane releases, notify stakeholders, and track mitigation efforts. Initially, MARS will track methane releases from oil and gas operations and, over time, will expand to include releases from coal facilities, agricultural operations, and landfills.
MARS isn’t the only new observing system on the block. Another impressive effort is ClimateTRACE, a collaborative project released just last week that uses satellite observations and sophisticated computer programs to pinpoint methane sources. The resulting data will provide scientists, policymakers and stakeholders the first global look at heat-trapping emissions from many gases, not just methane, at a local scale, even to the level of specific facilities.
As countries gear up for the Paris Agreement’s Global Stocktake—which will track emissions—scientific advances and monitoring tools can show where emissions are being underreported and help keep the world on track to meet the Paris Agreement goal.
More Corporate Accountability for Methane Emissions
These scientific advances present a unique tool for corporate accountability efforts, enabling the world to see specific super-polluting facilities and target them for policy implementation—and litigation. Accountability is desperately needed. Methane emissions from oil, gas and coal operations are estimated to be 70 percent higher than what countries are reporting. This dramatic underreporting undermines the chance of achieving the global goals of the Paris Agreement.
A relatively small number of companies and facilities contribute a large percentage of methane emissions. A recent report by the Global Energy Monitor shows that just 30 oil and gas companies—including U.S.-based giants Chevron and ExxonMobil—are responsible for 43 percent of the energy sector’s global methane emissions. Since the International Energy Agency shows that methane from oil and gas must fall by 77 percent by 2030, these companies will have to cut back their oil and gas production sharply.
Despite the obvious dangers of fossil fuel production and the multi-decade climate disinformation campaigns fossil fuel producers have perpetrated, the industry still holds political sway. At COP27, 636 registered attendees are lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry. This is an even higher number than in previous years and represents a contingent larger than that of many country’s delegations. Their efforts to cut deals and downplay the damage they do could undermine the progress that these talks are supposed to advance.
Don’t Forget Methane Emissions From Agriculture
The science continues to improve, but policymakers already know enough to start implementing plans to reduce methane emissions now. Several countries have released new mitigation plans at COP27, but will they be enough?
Last week, the United States released a strengthened methane reduction plan, building on this past summer’s joint US-European Union energy plan, which focuses on capturing methane from oil and gas infrastructure and eliminating flaring. Domestically, the plan hinges on a newly proposed Environmental Protection Agency rule to cut methane emissions from oil and gas production. This is a step in the right direction, and if the new rule is quickly finalized and implemented, it will help fight climate change and advance justice for communities where methane is harming residents’ health and well-being. But fixing leaks and reducing flaring isn’t enough. Scientists warn that it is imperative to rapidly reduce worldwide reliance on fossil fuels before 2030, but the industry’s plans to expand production are already in motion. We can’t just tweak the current system. We need to phase out fossil fuels.
While most efforts have focused on the oil and gas industry’s methane emissions, so far agriculture has not received the same kind of attention. Domestically, US methane reduction plans have neglected agriculture’s methane emissions despite it being the dominant share. UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports have consistently shown that changes to both food production and consumption patterns offer major mitigation potential, particularly reducing meat consumption in high- income countries. Much like in the fossil fuel sector, industrial meat and dairy producers have political influence that makes it difficult to regulate their emissions.
Like the fossil fuel industry, meat and dairy producers also send lobbyists to UN climate negotiations. At COP26 last year, meat industry lobbyists celebrated the fact that the Global Methane Pledge largely ignores agricultural methane, despite it being the largest global methane source. And given that the renewed pledges countries have released at COP27 continue that trend, they will likely celebrate again this year.
With climate impacts accelerating and emissions continuing to rise unabated, it is more important than ever to slash methane emissions. To do that will require advances in the science of tracking methane, as well as new justice-centered policy measures to reduce emissions. As countries continue to release plans under the Global Methane Pledge, they must focus on methane emissions from all sources, including fossil fuels and agriculture. The target year of 2030 is coming fast, and the time for action is now.