Energy Transition

Nord Stream methane leaks are ‘world’s worst’ – what does it mean for climate change?

Gas leak at Nord Stream 2 as seen from the Danish F-16 interceptor on Bornholm, Denmark September 27, 2022.

Ruptures of the Nord Stream gas pipelines are expected to cause the world’s biggest single leak of methane gas. Image: Danish Defence Command/Forsvaret Ritzau Scanpix/via REUTERS

Victoria Masterson
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  • Methane is 80 times worse for the planet than CO2 for accelerating climate change.
  • Ruptures of the Nord Stream gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea are expected to cause the world’s biggest single leak of methane gas.
  • Fossil fuel extraction – including oil, gas, and coal – the agriculture and waste industries are the biggest global methane emitters.

And record levels of it are thought to be leaking into the atmosphere from four ruptures in the Nord Stream 1 and 2 natural gas pipelines under the Baltic Sea.

Scientists say the Nord Stream leaks are a disaster for climate change, and that the world must speed up efforts to cut methane emissions.


How bad is the Nord Stream methane leak?

The Nord Stream leak is expected to be biggest single release of methane on record, Reuters reported after speaking to the International Methane Emissions Observatory (IMEO). This is a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) initiative that monitors methane emissions.

Methane equivalent to a third of Denmark’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 could leak from the Nord Stream pipelines in a worst-case scenario, the Danish Energy Agency estimates. This would be the methane equivalent to around 778 million standard cubic metres of natural gas.

The Nord Stream leak may be worse than a major leak in the Gulf of Mexico last December, IMEO believes.

This Gulf of Mexico leak released around 40,000 tonnes of methane over 17 days, according to the European Space Agency.

While “extraordinarily huge,” the Nord Stream methane leak is “a fraction” of routine methane leaks from fossil fuel operations including oil and gas fields and pipelines, reports technology news site, The Verge.

According to the International Energy Agency, 82 million tonnes of methane were emitted by the oil and gas industry in 2019. This would be like “the Nord Stream disaster taking place every two days,” The Verge reports.


What is methane?

Methane is an odourless, flammable gas made of carbon and hydrogen, explains Australia’s New South Wales Environment Protection Authority.

It is one of several greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change by trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Human activity in three sectors creates more than half of all global methane emissions, according to the Global Methane Assessment report from UNEP and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition.

These are fossil fuel extraction – including oil, gas and coal – the agriculture industry and the waste industry, including landfills and wastewater.

Methane is the main component of natural gas, explains South African news site Business Live.

Illustration of common methane sources.
Fossil fuel extraction, agriculture and waste are the three biggest emitters of methane. Image: NSW Environment Protection Authority

How polluting is methane?

Methane is a “powerful” greenhouse gas that has 80 times more global warming potential than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, UNEP says.

Since pre-industrial times, methane has caused about 30% of global warming. Volumes of methane in the atmosphere are also growing at their fastest rate since record keeping began in the 1980s.


What's the World Economic Forum doing to tackle air pollution?

Technologies are available now that could cut methane emissions by 45% by 2030, the Global Methane Assessment finds. This would prevent 255,000 premature deaths a year from respiratory and cardiovascular disease, and avoid 775,000 asthma-related hospital visits a year. A 45% cut in methane emissions would also save 73 billion hours of labour lost through extreme heat, and save 26 million tonnes of crop losses globally.

Urgently reducing methane levels is essential to keep global warming within 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, scientists say.

While carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for hundreds to thousands of years, methane starts to break down after around 10 years, the UNEP says. This means cutting methane emissions will have a much more immediate impact on containing global warming and climate change than cutting CO2.

Estimated annual sectoral methane emissions by region.
Coal mining, oil and gas, agriculture and the waste industry, including landfills, are the biggest methane emitters. Image: Climate & Clean Air Coalition

Could methane be worse than coal for the climate?

Natural gas is widely described by the energy industry as a “bridge fuel" to renewable energy – because it emits half as much carbon as coal per kilowatt when it’s burned.

But the scale of methane gas leaks from the oil and gas industry could mean natural gas is actually worse for the climate than coal, scientists fear.

A recent study by climate change organization Clean Air Task Force found methane leaking into the atmosphere from 123 oil and gas sites in countries including Germany, Hungary and Poland.


What is the world doing about methane?

More than 120 countries have signed the Global Methane Pledge, a commitment to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030.

The pledge was launched by the United States and the EU at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Summit (COP26) in Glasgow.

One of its first initiatives is the Global Methane Pledge Energy Pathway, which aims to cut methane emissions from the oil and gas sector. Actions include accelerating methane mitigation technologies and ending routine flaring. This is when unsold gas is burned, explains American media organization National Public Radio.

Moving towards plant-based diets and finding alternative sources of protein can help to reduce methane emissions from agriculture, UNEP says.

In the EU, measures to reduce methane emissions from waste have included the introduction in 1996 of a tax on landfill in the United Kingdom and the European Commission’s Landfill Directive, introduced in 1999 to limit landfilling. Methane emissions from landfill in Europe have almost halved since 1996, according to a joint EU-White House press release on the Global Methane Pledge.

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Energy TransitionClimate ActionNature and Biodiversity
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