Agriculture is the leading source of the human-induced methane emissions responsible for about a quarter of total emissions. Image: Unsplash/Annie Spratt
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This article was published in August 2021 and updated in November 2023.
- Methane poses more than 80 times the global warming threat of CO2 over a 20-year period, but methane emissions remain in the atmosphere for a relatively short time before degrading.
- Cutting methane levels will be felt more quickly than reducing CO2, say climate scientists, helping the world to reach net zero by 2050.
- The World Economic Forum's Global Risks Report 2023 ranks failure to mitigate climate change as the top risk facing the planet in the next 10 years.
Media headlines regularly feature the climate threat posed by carbon dioxide emissions, yet methane – the planet’s second most abundant greenhouse gas – has been largely overlooked.
But the focus is changing as climate scientists see cutting methane emissions as a way to buy time on the climate crisis.
Urgent action to reduce methane levels is essential to help reduce the risks of unavoidable, irreversible or abrupt changes in the planet's climate and to secure a liveable future for all, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPPC) AR6 Synthesis Report: Climate Change 2023.
To that end, the EU recently suggested a methane emissions limit on gas imports from 2030. The proposal, if adopted, could put pressure on EU fossil fuel suppliers to curb methane leaks from their oil and gas infrastructure.
But where does methane come from? Why should we be concerned about high concentrations? And what can we do to mitigate its impact?
Methane is highly effective at heating the planet; although less abundant, it contains more than 80 times the global warming potential of CO2 over a 20-year period.
But methane emissions remain in the atmosphere for a relatively short time – around 12 years compared to centuries for carbon dioxide – before degrading, so efforts to cut methane levels will be felt more quickly than with CO2. Curbing these emissions will help rapidly reduce how quickly the planet warms in the short and medium term.
Gauging levels of methane in the planet’s atmosphere isn’t an exact science, but research shows levels are not only rising fast, but entering uncharted territory.
Atmospheric methane levels in 2022 saw the fourth-largest annual increase since records began in 1983, following previous recorded highs in 2020 and 2021, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Methane emissions in the atmosphere have reached more than two-and-a-half times their pre-industrial levels.
While around two-fifths of methane emissions occur naturally, the remaining 60% is the result of human activity.
Agriculture is the leading source of human-induced methane emissions, responsible for about a quarter of the total at around 145 million tonnes each year, the International Energy Agency says.
The energy sector is not far behind, with coal, oil, gas and bioenergy accounting for around 134 million tonnes in 2020. Methane leaks are often found at poorly managed oil and gas installations that use dated or inefficient infrastructure.
What is the World Economic Forum doing to help companies reduce carbon emissions?
What are the solutions?
Methane mitigation solutions range from changing cows’ diets to upgrading “leaky” fossil fuel infrastructure.
With the COP28 climate talks hosted by the United Arab Emirates looming, the EU's proposed new methane rules could help encourage wider agreement by world leaders on curbing methane emissions, which is a vital part of efforts to reach net zero by 2050. In much the same way, global legislation helped phase out dangerous ozone-depleting CFC chemicals once commonly used in refrigerants and foam insulation.
Calls for the bloc's fossil fuel suppliers to update or replace dated oil and gas infrastructure aims to help prevent methane leaking into the atmosphere from old oil and gas wells and pipeline networks.
Norway, the EU's top natural gas supplier since Russia cut imports following its invasion of Ukraine, has one of the world's lowest methane emissions intensity levels. Here, the proposed methane emissions restrictions could have limited impact and prove simple to adopt.
This is not the case for some of the bloc's other natural gas suppliers, such as the US or Algeria, where methane emission rates are higher and more remedial action is needed.
EU attempts to audit the gas it buys and enforce measures to better manage, monitor and regulate methane emissions from natural gas imports build on previous international action.
US and EU policy-makers helped create the Global Methane Pledge at the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow in 2021, which targets a 30% reduction in global methane emissions by 2030. Almost 150 countries have signed up to the pledge.
Breaking our reliance on fossil fuels will not begin to cool the planet until around mid-century, scientists say. But cutting methane emissions could have a big impact in the short term, buying the planet valuable time to meet climate targets.
A United Nations Environment Programme report shows that a 45% reduction in human-induced methane emissions can be achieved within this decade, preventing nearly 0.3°C of global warming by 2045.
The World Economic Forum's Global Risks Report 2023 ranks failure to mitigate climate change as the top risk facing the planet in the coming 10-year period.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
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