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Readily available technologies can plug global methane releases: UN study

06 May 2021 Amena Saiyid

A global assessment of methane emissions released 6 May said currently available technologies for capturing releases due to human activity as well as fuel switching to renewables will make a sizeable dent in global levels of the potent GHG in the next 10 years, while positioning the world on a path to limit global warming.

Current emissions of methane -- 95% of which come from fossil fuels, waste, and livestock -- are growing rapidly and will not allow the world to reach the goal of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, according to a joint UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) study.

Reducing methane emissions is critical for reducing the rapid rate of global warming in the near term, as methane, though a short-lived GHG, has a global warming potential that is 86 times that of CO2 over a 20-year span.

The readily available reductions identified in the study mostly focus on technologies available for capturing methane from the fossil fuel sector. These, along with some additional measures such as fuel shifting to renewables, avoid nearly 0.3 degrees Celsius of global warming by 2045 and would be consistent with keeping the Paris Climate Agreement's goal within reach.

Strongest lever

The 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Global Warming of 1.5° C report said global methane emissions must be reduced by between 40% and 45% by 2030 to achieve the least cost-pathway to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius this century, alongside significant cuts in all GHGs including CO2.

"Cutting methane is the strongest lever we have to slow climate change over the next 25 years and complements necessary efforts to reduce carbon dioxide," UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen said.

Current emissions of methane are about 380 million mt/year, said Drew Shindell, the report's chief author and earth science professor at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment, said in a 6 May webinar on the report.

"If we put all these measures into place, we drop to about 240 million mt [a year] by 2030 so it's a big dent in the emissions … it gets us on the trajectory," he added.

Agriculture the largest source

Globally, agriculture is responsible for 40% of methane emissions, while fossil fuels rank a close second at 35%, and waste sources such as landfills make up about 20%, according to the report.

Although agriculture is the largest source, the study said the bulk of the reductions within the next decade can come from the fossil fuel sector, which has seen the most growth due to exploration, notably in the natural gas sector.

According to the study, technologies exist currently that can capture about 30% of the methane emissions from oil and gas operations, coal mining, and wastewater treatment processes and landfills, as well as managing methane releases from rice cultivation plus manure and enteric fermentation, or microbial digestion of food inside livestock.

The additional steps, which the UNEP said do not target methane, include a shift to renewable energy, residential and commercial energy efficiency, and a reduction in food loss and waste. Such steps would reduce methane emissions by an extra 15%, it said.

During the webinar, UNEP's Andersen noted that large oil and gas companies with ample staff and resources have already agreed to make cuts, but it is the smaller producers that are most affected. She highlighted BP, which has agreed to go carbon-neutral, but said other large companies are continuing with their existing operations.

Fugitive methane emissions have been an area of concern for the better part of the past decade -- with direct measurement posing a bit of a challenge and some disagreement over estimation methods, according to Sam Andrus, IHS Markit's Executive Director for Global Gas.

That did not stop a group of the largest producers, processors, transporters, and distributors from forming the One Future Coalition in 2014 with a goal of capping methane emissions intensity each year below 1%, starting in 2016, he said. The coalition's members recently reported a methane intensity of 0.334% in 2019, that is, far exceeding their goal.

Andrus also pointed to US natural gas producer EQT that is teaming up with Project Canary, an international environmental standards company, to demonstrate that gas can be produced cleanly and responsibly. Project Canary will provide continuous monitoring at two of the well pads belonging to EQT, which has operations in the Marcellus and Utica shales in the Appalachia Basin.

"The new UN report has identified reducing global fugitive methane emissions as an area to quickly address climate impacts of fossil fuel use," Andrus said. "One Future and the recent EQT pilot with Project Canary provide possible pathways for moving towards responsibly sourced natural gas."

Methane knows no borders

The study did not single out any global region as the largest contributor to emissions of the GHG. Instead, the study identified the sectors with the best potential for methane emissions cuts in various regions:

  • The waste sector holds that position in Europe and India.
  • In China, it is the coal production sector, followed by livestock
  • Africa's biggest cuts could come in the livestock sector followed by oil and gas.
  • The coal and waste sectors in Asia-Pacific outside of China and India provide key opportunities.
  • The oil and gas sectors in the Middle East, North America, and Russia and the former Soviet Union countries should be a focus.
  • In Latin America, it is the livestock sector.

A majority of this abatement potential, according to the study, can be achieved at low cost, less than $600/mt of methane, especially in the waste sector and the coal subsector in most regions and for the oil and gas subsector in North America, the study said.

"Cutting methane is the fastest way we know to slow warming," Institute of Governance & Sustainable Development President Durwood Zaelke said in a 6 May statement, adding: "This makes methane mitigation the best strategy for slowing self-reinforcing feedbacks and avoiding dangerous climate tipping points, including the loss of the reflective sea ice in the Arctic."

World leaders agree

Zaelke pointed to the Leaders Summit on Climate that US President Joe Biden held 22-23 April where many global leaders, despite their differences on a host of issues, agreed that methane reductions need to be part of the climate solution. These included Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, who said "we must take into account absolutely every cause of global warming" as he reminded other leaders that "it would be extremely important to develop broad and effective international cooperation in the calculation and monitoring of all polluting emissions into the atmosphere."

At this same summit, Vietnam President Nguyen Xuan Phuc announced plans to reduce the country's methane emissions from agriculture by 10% by 2030, while the presidents of both Argentina and France stressed the need to tackle methane.

Also, energy ministries from the US, Canada, Norway, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia -- which represent 40% of global oil and gas production -- established the Net Zero Producers Forum to create pragmatic net-zero strategies, including methane abatement.

In a 20 January executive order, Biden had already ordered the US Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider reinstating 2016 rules, which President Donald Trump overturned, to limit methane releases from extracting, processing, distributing, and transporting oil and gas products from new as well as existing operations. His climate plan to meet the Paris treaty's goals also calls for action on methane.

Calling the UNEP study "the most comprehensive look" at methane to date, Sarah Smith, super pollutants program director for the Clean Air Task Force, a US environmental nonprofit, said it makes clear what advocates have long known.

"The opportunity is clear. The benefits are enormous. The time is now. We have no chance of meeting our global climate goals without immediately tackling methane emissions," Smith said.

Andersen agreed, concluding "the assessment is there, the science has spoken."

Posted 06 May 2021 by Amena Saiyid, Senior Climate & Energy Research Analyst, IHS Markit

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