Nature and Biodiversity

Methane solutions offer down payment on our climate future

Oil drilling rig at sunset.

Global methane emissions are on the rise. Image: Unsplash/Maria Lupan

Deborah M. Gordon
Professor of Biology, Stanford University
Ebun Ayandele
Associate, RMI
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Future of the Environment

  • Scientists have observed record annual increases in atmospheric methane for the second year in a row.
  • Methane has 80 times more global warming potential than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.
  • Plugging oil and gas leaks, rethinking waste disposal and activating markets can help reduce methane emissions, say experts.

As the world works to lower greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, one super pollutant is headed in the wrong direction. For the second year in a row, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) scientists observed record annual increases in atmospheric methane. And this year’s increase is the largest recorded since measurements began four decades ago.

Methane has a global warming potential 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. Climate scientists, political leaders and civil society actors have begun to realize that reducing methane emissions offers the single biggest opportunity to address near-term warming. Fortunately, many opportunities exist to reduce methane emissions, including plugging oil and gas leaks, rethinking waste disposal and activating markets. But we first have to know where those emissions are coming from. By making the invisible visible, the rise in global methane emissions can be reversed.

Breakdown of the sources of methane emissions.
Livestock produces the most methane, accounting for 32% of global methane emissions. Image: UNEP and CCAC, “Global Methane Assessment,” 2021.

Eliminating methane leaks in oil and gas systems

The oil and gas sector is the second largest global source of methane, accounting for an estimated 23 percent of global emissions. Operating leak-free is a priority and many tools are already at our disposal.

A growing array of satellites are spotting methane leaks. Some are massive, including releases during oil and gas maintenance operations or equipment failures that are not accounted for in current emissions inventories. A recent study identified ultra-emitters estimated at 8–12 percent of total global oil and gas methane emissions, which have gone undetected until now. And data collection by Carbon Mapper and EDF in the Permian Basin across Texas and New Mexico shows that repairing persistent leaks from pipelines, well pads, compressor stations and processing facilities could immediately reduce 100,000 tons of methane per year.

Beyond satellite detection, RMI and our academic partners at Stanford University and the University of Calgary developed open-source models to estimate methane life-cycle emissions from oil and gas supply chains. This climate intelligence can help guide policies and design market strategies to reduce methane emissions. For example, EU efforts to replace leaky Russian gas with less emissions-intensive supplies could cut methane emissions by nearly 40 percent in the short term as Germany accelerates its transition to 100 percent renewable electricity.

A combination of continued monitoring, improved oversight and greater attention by operators can "tighten the screws" on leaky infrastructure to cut the methane footprint of this important sector.

Rethinking waste methane

The waste sector which includes landfills and wastewater is another major source of methane, accounting for about one in five tons of methane emitted each year. However, methane from waste systems worldwide is less understood than oil and gas systems. Governments have long overlooked the waste sector, and emissions may be even greater than regulators currently assume.

Validating model estimates with direct measurements, such as remote sensing, can improve waste methane inventories. For example, Carbon Mapper’s two new satellites launching in 2023 will improve waste-methane detection. In the meantime, this nonprofit continues to conduct aircraft flyover campaigns to detect and analyze waste methane emissions, starting in North America.

Large methane plumes from landfills and unmanaged waste dumps.
A growing number of satellites are spotting methane leaks. Image: Carbon Mapper
Large methane plumes from landfills and unmanaged waste dumps.
Total global methane budget is estimated at 400 Mt per year. Image: Carbon Mapper

How is the World Economic Forum facilitating the transition to clean energy?

There are many waste-methane solutions, both technical and behavioral. These include preventing food waste, diverting organic waste for processing, converting dumpsites into modern well-managed engineered landfills, and designing and operating landfills to optimize methane recovery. The World Bank estimates that organic waste accounts for 64–68 percent of municipal solid waste streams globally. Reducing food and other organic waste offers major methane reductions. Moreover, converting open dumps — often found in developing countries — to modern engineered landfills not only provides climate benefits but also helps to protect public health and safety. For example, in 2005, the Leuwigajah dumpsite in Bandung, Indonesia, recorded the second deadliest waste landslide in history, burying 71 houses and killing 143 people.

An integrated waste management strategy that combines several mitigation solutions upstream (before waste reaches landfills) and downstream (at landfills) is needed to curb waste methane emissions. Similar efforts should also be directed to tackle methane emissions from wastewater operations. A new report (due out in summer 2022) from RMI, Carbon Mapper and IG3IS will dive into greater detail on mitigating solid waste methane emissions.

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Activating markets

We cannot manage what we do not measure. Together, satellites and models can pinpoint and quantify the varying methane emissions from oil and gas, waste and other sectors. With this climate intelligence, companies and countries can clean up operations, regulate methane and put a price on emissions.

Actions and new proposals are underway. The Global Methane Pledge was signed at COP26 with funding support from the Methane Hub. Over 100 countries committed to cut more than eight gigatons of CO2 equivalent emissions a year by 2030. That’s equivalent to the emissions from all global transport.

Oil and gas companies are voluntarily certifying their methane emissions using open-source methods and independent verification. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Build Back Better Act (H.R. 5376) in 2021, which would charge the oil and gas industry $900 per ton for its methane emissions. (After two years, the methane fee would increase to $1,500 per ton). And, as the largest importer of globally traded gas, the EU is using its market power to leverage methane emissions reductions. EU gas (mostly from Norway) is estimated to be far less methane intensive than global gas supplies. Regulations in the European Commission’s Methane Strategy, together with a carbon border tax, could significantly cut methane emissions.

While CO2 poses a long-term climate threat, cutting methane offers climate benefits in the decade ahead. Once it is spotted, remedies are available. Markets respond to prices and regulations. These are the best tools available to rapidly cut methane emissions that immediately safeguard the climate. The proof will come soon enough when NOAA releases its next annual atmospheric methane measurements. The goal is to reverse current methane trends so that next year, and every year after, this super pollutant becomes more scarce in our atmosphere.

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