US and EU methane push sets global benchmark for climate action ahead of November talks

Mark Brownstein

The U.S. and the European Union announced a commitment today to cut their methane emissions 30% by the end of the decade, and are rallying other governments to join them. It’s the best climate news we’ve had in a long time, particularly after this summer’s global wave of extreme weather disasters.

The pledge is a milestone in the climate fight, establishing a central place for methane in the race to achieve the warming limits in the Paris Climate Agreement. This vital role was sharply underscored last month by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Cutting these emissions is the single best chance we have to slow the rate of warming, even as we decarbonize the energy system. The new methane pledge is a litmus test for any country coming into November’s United Nations climate talks. But it is also important to understand that a 30% methane cut represents a floor, not the ceiling — evidence is clear that even greater results are possible.

Slowing the warming now

Scientists led by EDF’s Ilissa Ocko published research this spring showing that a rapid, full-scale reduction of methane emissions from oil and gas, agriculture and other activities could slow the pace of worldwide warming by as much as 30%. By fully deploying known solutions, they say we could cut emissions in half by 2030, avoiding half a degree Fahrenheit of warming by midcentury, and over 1 degree by 2100.

One degree would make all the difference in a world grappling to meet the Paris goals. More important, it would reduce the climate risk for millions of people. The findings were echoed in the Global Methane Assessment by the Climate & Clean Air Coalition and the U.N. Environment Programme.

Notably, the new U.S./EU pledge covers methane from all key emitting sectors (along with fossil fuels, they include livestock production, rice cultivation, landfills and wastewater treatment). This holistic view is important for the long run, but also recognizes that the fastest, most cost effective reduction opportunities are from oil and gas.

Emissions from oil & gas are key

The International Energy Agency estimates it’s possible to cut methane emissions from the global oil and gas sector 75% by 2030. That’s not surprising, given that methane is essentially natural gas, a product they already capture and sell. While the industry is large, it is relatively concentrated, and the fixes are generally straightforward.

We also have a very good sense of the solutions for other sectors (better livestock feed and improved cultivation practices, for example), and strong opportunities exist within this decade. But implementing them across diffuse, often small-scale operations worldwide requires a longer time horizon (which means we should be working on them now).

But here’s the thing: Oil, gas and coal accounts for about a third of human-made methane, which means the 75% sectoral reduction identified by the IEA pencils out to a 25% cut in the total — which would put us well on the way to the 30% envisioned in the U.S./EU pledge.

That tells us that the pledge is an eminently feasible goal. It also suggests we could achieve even more if ambitions were greater. Accordingly, we at EDF will continue to push both regulators and operators to aim higher.

Turning promises into action

The U.S./EU pledge deserves applause, and we strongly encourage other countries to sign on to it. The harder part, as always, is turning promises into action. Countries (and oil and gas companies) need concrete policies to reach these goals as soon as possible.

According to the Ocko study, a go-slow approach that stretches out full adoption from 2030 to 2050 would mean a 5% increase in the average worldwide warming rate and an extra 0.2 degrees Fahrenheit temperature rise by 2050, relative to fast action. Participating countries should set an interim deadline for concrete, measurable progress by 2025 for oil and gas as well as the other sectors.

Fortunately, progress has already started. The Biden administration is about to release strong new emission rules for the oil and gas sector, while the EU is developing a comprehensive methane strategy. Legislation for the European oil and gas sector is expected in December, with action on imports on the horizon.

A chance we can’t afford to miss

Methane levels in the atmosphere today are the highest on record.

The U.S./EU pledge is the strongest recognition yet that methane is both a serious threat and a crucial opportunity. Solving this problem is a chance we simply cannot afford to miss.

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