Slashing methane emissions is crucial for the climate

This piece was originally published in the Financial Times.

With the tightness of natural gas supplies and the damaging impacts of the climate crisis taking turns to dominate the headlines, it is inexplicable that huge volumes of natural gas — two-and-a-half times the amount that the United Kingdom consumes annually — are being allowed simply to leak out into the atmosphere each year from fossil fuel operations worldwide. An amount almost as large is needlessly burnt in flares.

These emissions are mostly methane, a potent greenhouse gas that has contributed to about 30 per cent of the rise in global temperatures since the Industrial Revolution. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has highlighted methane emissions as a key opportunity for tackling global warming.

Fossil fuel operations worldwide, from oil and gas drilling to pipelines and coal mines, emitted close to 120m tonnes of methane in 2020 — nearly one-third of all such emissions from human activity. This is why governments seeking to step up action at the COP26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow need to make slashing methane emissions a central part of their plans, alongside decarbonisation. The energy industry has the means quickly to stop a vast amount of these emissions, which could make a significant difference to the speed at which our atmosphere heats up. Policymakers need to apply more pressure so fossil fuel companies have to clean up their act.

Methane emissions are often easily avoidable. Most are the result of a combination of misaligned business incentives, lack of information and poorly run operations at fossil fuel-producing companies. More than 70 per cent of such emissions from oil and gas operations are technically possible to avoid, and about 45 per cent would typically be avoidable at no net cost — a proportion that would be far higher at today’s elevated gas prices.

The International Energy Agency’s recent Net Zero by 2050 road map states that methane emissions from fossil fuel operations need to fall about 75 per cent between 2020 and 2030. Close to one-third of this decline results from a reduction in fossil fuel consumption, mostly coal. The larger share comes from rapidly putting in place emissions reduction measures and technologies.

New IEA analysis shows what is needed to achieve these reductions. First, countries that have announced ambitious commitments to reduce methane need to follow through. Some countries have included methane alongside other greenhouse gases in their national net zero pledges, while others have made more targeted announcements, such as the recent Global Methane Pledge, led by the EU and US, which aims to reduce all methane emissions from human activity by at least 30 per cent from 2020 levels by 2030.

Key policy measures have already made a difference in some parts of the world —including leak detection and repair requirements, technology standards and a ban on non-emergency gas flaring and venting. These measures should be widely adopted and as quickly as possible.

Second, additional countries will need to join the effort, especially large producers. About 40 per cent of methane emissions from major oil and gas producing countries are linked to supplies that are ultimately destined for economies with strong methane commitments such as the EU and Japan. If committed governments can leverage this buying power, they could drive further reductions across the supply chain.

Third, fossil fuel companies need to do their part. A growing number of them are working to encourage sound policies and regulations on methane. If these companies can reduce emissions across their entire footprint, and spread best practices across the industry, they should be able to accelerate progress further.

Finally, governments, companies and other stakeholders must work towards greater transparency on the sources and magnitude of methane emissions, and establish a common framework for how best to measure and report it. Better information helps governments regulate effectively and gives power to consumers and investors in identifying the best performers on methane reduction. The improvement of monitoring technologies, notably from satellites, is a promising development.

Recent policy and technological advances give us reason to be optimistic that with stronger action from governments, we can put methane emissions into decline this decade. This would mark a key turning point in the broader fight against climate change.