Climate Change

CoP26 report card: Methane’s role in global warming in sharp focus for the first time

105 countries signed pledge to cut emission, 3 biggest emitters didn't join

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Friday 12 November 2021

Methane — a short-lived pollutant — has emerged as the latest target for stopping the planet from warming further beyond the pre-industrial levels. Until a few years ago, as carbon emissions got all the attention, methane had not found a place in global negotiations. 

On November 2, 2021 the 26th Conference of Parties (CoP26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change became the first one in recent history to dedicate an event on it. 

The same day, 105 countries led by the United States and the European Union signed the voluntary and non-binding Global Methane Pledge. Under this, countries have promised to cut their methane emissions by at least 30 per cent by 2030. 

Together, if this level is achieved, it will amount to a 40 per cent cut in the global methane emissions. Among other deals, this pledge has the most immediate impact on reducing global warming. As Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), said: Cutting methane emissions is the best way to slow down climate change over the next 25 years.

The signatories include 15 major methane emitters such as Brazil, Nigeria and Canada. But the three biggest emitters — China, Russia and India, together contributing 35 per cent of the global methane emissions — didn’t sign the pledge. 

At least 22 countries from Africa have signed the pledge. The US and the EU declared this pledge in September 2021, when only nine countries had signed it. More than 20 leading philanthropic organisations, including Bloomberg Philanthropies, Children’s Investment Fund Foundation and Oak Foundation, had already committed funding support of $328 million (around Rs 2,440 crore) to reduce methane emissions in October 2021.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its latest assessment report, specially mentioned for the first time short-lived climate pollutants like methane needs to be targeted for reducing global warming. It said that methane mitigation has the greatest potential to slow warming over the next 20 years.

Of the total anthropogenic methane emissions, agriculture contributes 40 per cent, fossil fuels 35 per cent and waste 20 per cent. 

Methane’s presence in the atmosphere is just 2 parts per million (PPM) compared to 412 PPM for carbon dioxide (CO2). Its life in the atmosphere is hardly 12 years compared to more than 200 years of  CO2. But, methane traps heat 84 times that of CO2, thus making it a ‘super warmer of the atmosphere’. 

Among GHGs, it is the second-biggest contributor to global warming after CO2, according to IPCC. At least 30 per cent of global warming since the industrial revolution is due to methane emissions, according to UNEP. 

At present, it is proliferating faster than any other time since record keeping began in the 1980s. 

Atmospheric methane increased during lockdowns imposed to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In 2020, its annual increase was 14.7 parts per billion (ppb) — the largest annual increase since systematic measurements began in 1983. 

The global average burden of methane for December 2020 was 1892.3 ppb. This was an increase of about 119 ppb, or 6 per cent in the two decades since 2000. 

Warming can be reduced by at least 0.2 degrees Celsius (°C) by 2050, if countries deliver according to the pledge, said Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, in her speech during the launch of the pledge. “We need big structural changes, yes, to reach 2050 climate neutrality. But we cannot wait for 2050.” 

She added: 

So, cutting back on methane emissions is one of the most effective things we can do to reduce near-term global warming and keep 1.5°C. It is the lowest-hanging fruit. 

With existing technology, a 75 per cent reduction in methane from the oil and gas sector is possible, 50 per cent of this could be done at no net cost.

The Global Methane Assessment (GMA) done by the Climate and Clean Air Coalition and UNEP estimated that curbing human-caused methane emission by 45 per cent this decade would keep warming beneath the threshold agreed by world leaders. 

Oxidation of methane is responsible for formation of ground-level ozone (smog), which is a harmful air pollutant. Thus, each year, it would prevent 255,000 premature deaths, 775,000 asthma-related hospital visits, 73 billion hours of lost labour from extreme heat and 26 million tonnes of crop losses globally.

Methane leaks that are a major source of emission, moreover, can be fixed at no extra cost, according to GMA. The assessment showed that up to 80 per cent of measures necessary to stop methane leaks from oil and gas operations and 98 per cent from coal don’t involve any cost. Rather, the steps will increase earnings as the saved methane can be sold.

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