The little-reported initiative, increasingly seen as the world’s last hope of avoiding dangerous global warming, is attracting worldwide support – but Britain is dragging its feet.
Methane – 86 times more powerful than CO2 in heating the planet – is responsible for 45 per cent of climate change, according to a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It is at record levels in the atmosphere and – driven by emissions from the fossil fuel industry, waste tips and agriculture – those levels are rising at an accelerating rate.
Last week the European Parliament passed the EU’s first legislation to combat methane pollution. But Britain, which once led the world in reducing its emissions, has rejected calls to take rapid action.
The new EU legislation will cut methane pollution – tightening measures against leaks; banning venting and flaring from coal mine drainage stations by 2025 and ventilation shafts by 2020; and requiring fossil fuel imports to meet its standards.
Biden aims to spread the campaign against methane worldwide, and has made it a centrepiece of four climate summits he has held for world leaders since taking office.
One, in September 2021, presaged the launch of a Global Methane Pledge at Glasgow’s COP 26 two months later, under which governments commit to cut emissions of the gas by at least 30 per cent by 2030. The latest, last month, launched the Methane Finance Sprint to raise $200m (£161m) in six months to redress the lack of funding.
Britain has signed the pledge, but is doing little. Not long ago, it was cutting emissions faster than any other OECD country – but that was mainly an unintentional byproduct of abandoning coal mining and reducing the amount of waste going to landfill.
Research by the Green Alliance shows the UK could reduce its methane emissions by 43 per cent by 2030 – exceeding the pledge’s 30 per cent – at little cost, but is on course only to trim them by 14 per cent, failing to honour its international obligations. It recently rejected a report’s recommendation to ban flaring from 2025.
While Boris Johnson was a vocal early supporter of the pledge, Rishi Sunak seems less interested. He failed to turn up to Biden’s last summit, though the White House was expecting him, sending energy secretary Grant Shapps instead. Britain is almost alone among leading Western economies in refusing to contribute to the President’s Methane Finance Sprint.
So far 150 countries have joined the pledge, with some taking radical action: Canada is halfway to cutting emissions from its oil and gas industry by 70 per cent by 2030, while Malaysia’s national oil company and regulator plans to slash them in half by 2025.
China and India, major polluters, have not joined the pledge. But China is said to be drawing up a plan to tackle methane, while India is actively reducing emissions from landfill.
Campaigners are pressing for strong measures to reduce emissions to be agreed at December’s climate COP in Dubai, leading to a global treaty.
“An international methane agreement is inevitable, because it’s not possible to solve climate change without it,” says Durwood Zaelke, president of the DC-based Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development. “The question is: will it come early enough?”
Why reducing methane could be vital
Cutting emissions can have a rapid effect because methane lasts just decades in the atmosphere, compared to C02’s centuries. A seminal United Nations report concludes that such action could prevent 0.3 degrees of warming by 2040.
That offers hope of avoiding permanently exceeding the danger level of 1.5°C above preindustrial levels – something a UN report last week predicted was likely to happen briefly in the next five years.
By contrast, a groundbreaking paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded last summer that even rapid and radical cuts in C02 emissions could not stop the world from permanently crashing through the 1.5 degree guardrail.
Reducing C02 is vital for keeping global warming under control in the second half of the century and beyond – but it can increase it in the short term.
This is because, as the IPCC has pointed out, burning fossil fuels emits large amounts of sulphate particles that cool the atmosphere and partially counteract the effect of C02. Switching to clean energy means the particles’ dampening effect is lost, as they fall out within weeks, accelerating immediate warming.
The IPCC calls for “strong, rapid and sustained methane reductions”. But climate negotiations continue to focus almost entirely on C02. Methane gets less than two per cent of the money spent on combatting climate change, despite having caused almost half of the problem.
What is the US doing?
The Biden Administration is setting out to redress the focus on C02 over methane, launching a $20bn (£16bn) programme with a “relentless focus to root out emissions wherever we can find them”.
The US administration is finalising tough new regulations to slash methane emissions, which have caused almost as much climate change globally as the infinitely more publicised carbon dioxide (C02). The regulation includes cutting pollution from oil and gas wells by almost 90 per cent by 2030, and the world’s first fee for emitting the greenhouse gas.
Its Environment Protection Administration is finalising measures, to be released this year, to slash emissions from the oil and gas industry by 87 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030, through such measures as plugging leaks from oil and gas wells, and controlling the flaring and venting of unused gas.
The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management is bringing in another set of regulations to cut leaks and control flaring at oil and gas facilities on public lands. And the Department of Transport is tightening rules on pipelines to cut leakage.
From 1 January energy producers that release large amounts of methane will have to pay a fee for every ton of excess methane they emit, starting at $900 and rising to $1,500 by 2026.
Further measures will aim to capture 70 per cent of gas generated by landfill throughout the US and work with farmers to reduce agricultural emissions.
The White House points out that such measures are relatively easy and cheap. The UN has concluded that 60 per cent of methane reductions can be made at little or no cost: 30 per cent save money or quickly pay for themselves. And, it adds, they “can create tens of thousands of good-paying jobs across the country”.