Climate Change

Nord Stream spill is biggest methane leak ever, but minuscule compared to global release of the greenhouse gas: UNEP

Arresting methane release is crucial in combating climate change

By Arya Rohini
Published: Wednesday 22 February 2023
Emissions of this potent greenhouse gas have increased more rapidly than ever since the 1980s. Photo: iStock.

The rupture of the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea is the biggest single event that led to the massive release of climate-damaging methane. But the incident is a “drop in the ocean compared to the amount of methane released globally,” found the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Also read: Nord Stream leaks: Where will Europe get its gas from now?

A massive plume of highly concentrated methane, a significantly more potent but shorter-lived greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, was released into the atmosphere after the incident in September 2022, according to a UNEP analysis released in February 2023.

Arresting methane release is crucial in combating climate change. Emissions of this potent greenhouse gas have increased more rapidly than ever since the 1980s.

To keep the 1.5°C temperature limit of the UN-mandated Paris Agreement within reach, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommends cutting methane emissions by at least 30 per cent by 2030.

The amount of methane released during the incident represents less than 0.1 per cent of the total annual human-made methane emissions, the analysis pointed out.

It also equals the methane emissions the oil and gas industry generates in a single day, another report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) noted.

“While enormous for a single event, the Nord Stream incident is a drop in the ocean compared to the amount of methane released globally,” said Manfredi Caltagirone, head of the International Methane Emissions Observatory (IMEO).

Also read: Nord Stream spews high levels of methane, likely to affect marine life

This reminds us it has never been more urgent to cut methane now, if we want to tackle climate change in the short-term, Caltagirone said in a UN press release.

The research helps close the information gap about how important methane emissions are and where they are emitted worldwide. It also reduces the uncertainty connected with the methane leak.

IMEO scientists examined a variety of data sources to analyse the Nord Stream leak, including tower measurements (data collected and post-processed after using multiple atmospheric data integration methods), satellite-based estimations, aerial observations, and engineering calculations.

IMEO is creating a worldwide public database of methane emissions with unparalleled precision and granularity to spur action to reduce methane emissions.

This leak highlights the critical need to reduce emissions of this potent greenhouse gas, which contributes to at least a quarter of global warming.

Also read: A rapidly growing rocket industry could undo decades of work to save the ozone layer — unless we act now

In October 2023, scientists had identified more than 50 ‘super-emitters’ of heat-trapping methane gas in central Asia, west Asia and the southwestern United States, according to a release by NASA October 25, 2022.

Most of these sites have ties with agriculture and fossil fuel industries.

Methane emissions from the fuel industry reached near-record levels in 2022. This prompted the IEA to urge oil and gas corporations to utilise “windfall” earnings to clean up methane leaks.

The industry was responsible for 135 million tonnes of methane emitted into the atmosphere last year, just slightly less than the record high in 2019, according to the agency.

It accounts for a small portion of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions compared to carbon dioxide. But it is thought to be 80 times more efficient than carbon dioxide at trapping atmospheric heat in the 20 years following its release.

Methane stays in the atmosphere for only ten years, unlike CO2, which persists for hundreds or thousands of years.

This indicates that a significant decrease in methane emissions might sharply reduce anticipated global warming by the middle of the century.

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