COP28 Global Methane Pledge Efforts Still Not Enough

November 20, 2023 | 10:58 am
A herd of cows grazes in a field in the foreground, against a backdrop of massive smokestacks emitting some horrid-looking gas.Peggychoucair/Pixabay
Shaina Sadai
Hitz Fellow

On the busy agenda for the COP28 United Nations climate negotiations this year are continuing efforts to implement the Global Methane Pledge, which was agreed to two years ago at COP26. The pledge is a voluntary agreement to reduce global methane emissions by 30 percent below 2020 levels by 2030; however, methane levels keep going up and we are woefully off track for meeting this goal.

Last year I wrote how current efforts were insufficient and still ignored the largest anthropogenic methane source— agriculture— and unfortunately, this remains true today. Plans countries have submitted under the Paris Agreement would lead to an increase in overall emissions by 2030 and that trend desperately needs to be reversed. Action to meet the Global Methane Pledge would help reverse the insufficient progress under the Paris Agreement, but it will require scaled up ambition, including consideration of agricultural methane, and keeping a keen eye on industry greenwashing.

Methane gas has devastating effects on the climate system and its extraction and combustion generate numerous harms to human health. Compared to carbon dioxide (CO2), methane doesn’t linger for long in the atmosphere after being emitted. But during the decade it does linger, its heat-trapping potential is 80x stronger than CO2. Methane’s relatively short timescale and large impact make reducing it crucial to meet the ever-narrowing window left to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

So far, 149 countries have signed on to the Global Methane Pledge, and collectively they account for 45 percent of global heat-trapping methane emissions. It is time for them to put words into action and reverse the trend of accumulating global methane emissions.

Tracking and taking stock

Monitoring efforts around methane are dramatically scaling up. Data from these new scientific monitoring efforts will inform the first Global Stocktake, happening this year at COP28. This will also allow for ground-truthing country and industry claims about mitigation efforts. This is essential, because scientific monitoring efforts suggest that for all emissions sources, the actual emissions are higher than what countries are reporting to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in their own emissions inventories.

Robust monitoring data will also allow for point source identification of super-emitters. New science has shown that the largest fossil fuel, dairy, and waste methane super-emitters contribute a sizeable fraction of the total methane emissions in the regions the study authors monitored. Other teams find similar results. Identifying the largest polluters is crucial to keep polluters accountable and confirm whether mitigation efforts are having the intended effect.

Corporate high emitters

When a methane super-emitter is identified, the company or government who owns that site needs to take action. Several global efforts also aim to track the worst corporate offenders using a variety of scientific methods, all of which can be enhanced with the newest monitoring data.

Global Energy Monitor’s tracking of corporate methane emissions found that 30 fossil fuel companies were responsible for 43% of the sectors’ emissions. The top 3 worst offenders were The National Iranian Oil Company, Russia’s Gazprom, and China Energy. Similarly, the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy has found that the 5 largest meat and 10 largest dairy companies combined are responsible for a larger share of global methane emissions than several countries. The worst offenders are JBS Foods, Marfrig Global Foods (both headquartered in Brazil), and Tyson Foods.

The fossil fuel industry and meat and dairy industry also use the same playbook of obscuring their role in generating pollution, delaying taking action on reducing heat-trapping emissions, and favoring false solutions which amount to greenwashing. Their use of these tactics underlie the calls to hold both the fossil fuel and meat and dairy industries accountable for their actions.

Industry accountability

One greenwashing tactic used by both industries is a focus on reductions in emissions intensity rather than total emissions. In other words, both industries intend to keep producing ever more of their products—and therefore increasing overall pollution— just with each unit of product having slightly lower emissions. Domestically, the Environmental Protection Agency is finalizing a rule to cut methane emissions and other hazardous air pollutants from oil and gas operations, and is expected to soon follow that with a proposed rule that will level a fee on large producers with excessive methane emissions. These are critically important steps, and if quickly implemented, they will help fight climate change and advance justice for communities where oil and gas extraction is harming residents’ health and well-being. But still, much more action is needed.

The approach of focusing on minor fixes like reducing emissions intensity is fundamentally misaligned with the vast scale of transformative systemic change that is needed to minimize damage to the climate and meet the goals of the Global Methane Pledge and Paris Agreement. Science shows that keeping the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal within reach will require dramatic declines in fossil fuel production and a global shift in diets away from meat and dairy. Yet countries’ submissions under the Paris Agreement when mentioning methane mitigation tend to focus on minor fixes like reducing flaring or constructing biodigesters on farms. Reducing emissions intensity while ramping up production, or focusing on limited fixes like capturing methane from leaky fossil fuel infrastructure and cow manure, are not enough to address the vast scale of methane pollution globally.

Small scale fixes are what the industries raking in billions of dollars in profit want, so that regulations don’t cut into their bottom line. To advocate for their interests they send an ever-growing number of lobbyists to the UN climate negotiations. Over 600 representatives from the fossil fuel industry attended COP27, up 25% just in the year since COP26, where they continued to obstruct mitigation efforts. Much like the fossil fuel industry, lobbyists from the agricultural industry have also had an increased presence with the number of industry lobbyists more than doubling between COP26 and COP27, including dozens of representatives from the meat and dairy industry. These lobbyists celebrated after COP26 when the Global Methane Pledge largely ignored agriculture despite the sector being the largest anthropogenic methane source. Industry lobbyists have also played a role in moving the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to minimize the environmental harms of meat and dairy. Steps need to be taken to ensure that the largest polluters don’t have a seat at the table to continue the obstruction they have pushed for too many decades.

The time to take action on climate-damaging pollution is right now. With methane concentrations rising, driving temperatures ever higher and worsening climate impacts, it is more important than ever to take strong action. The Global Methane Pledge is crucial for addressing climate change, but we must make sure that countries strengthen their pledges, hold super-emitters accountable, don’t fall for greenwashing, and stop giving representatives from the world’s biggest polluters a seat at the table. We have an ever-increasing set of scientific tools and research that can point to the highest emitting sectors, countries, and companies. Countries must now act on this science and do more to reduce methane emissions by phasing out fossil fuels and considering the largest methane source— agriculture—if we want to keep hope for 1.5 degrees Celsius alive.