This post is by Liam Hardy, policy analyst at Green Alliance.
Tomorrow, at the COP27 climate conference in Egypt, we can expect to hear updates from world leaders in relation to the Global Methane Pledge. Green Alliance recently released new analysis exploring how the UK could bring down methane emissions by up to 43 per cent, and how it could amplify impact by supporting other countries to tackle their own emissions. But, despite signing the pledge and committing to rapidly cutting methane emissions by 2030 at last year’s COP26, the UK has yet to share any plans on what it will do.
Methane is 80 times more potent than CO2 over 20 years, and almost 30 times more powerful at warming over the course of a century. This is because it takes roughly a decade to break down, which is much faster than CO2. So rapid methane emissions reductions, when combined with CO2 cuts, can help to cool the planet quickly. If we are to have any hope of staying below the Paris agreement limit of 1.5°C of global warming, we should cut methane emissions urgently. Unless we do, we risk major climate impacts and tipping points.
Rapidly cutting methane emissions will speed up climate action
Because methane is short-lived, what matters most for climate change is the rate it is emitted. Unlike CO2, where the total atmospheric stock of carbon is important, reducing the rate of methane emissions can quickly reduce warming. Proponents of the pledge claim it could undo 0.2°C of warming by 2050.
The Global Methane Pledge is a diplomatic achievement, but it is not without its critics. Some climate scientists suggest that even more drastic methane emissions cuts of 50 per cent by 2030 will be needed to prevent the 0.2°C of warming. But, whatever the pledge says, it means nothing if signatories don’t follow through with action.
The UK’s methane emissions come mainly from the agriculture, waste and energy sectors. Excellent progress has been made in curbing methane emissions from waste over the past few decades. The Landfill Tax, together with efforts to capture and use the methane generated by decomposing organic waste, has cut UK landfill methane emissions by 68 per cent since 1990. Unfortunately, much of that waste diverted from landfills has ended up in incinerators, releasing CO2 emissions. So there is still plenty of scope for the waste sector to go further. Bringing forward a proposed ban on organic waste going to landfill and stricter rules around capturing methane from landfill sites could result in a further 62 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030 (on a 2020 baseline). But the ban must not lead to more incineration; instead biodegradable waste should be treated in existing anaerobic digestion facilities.
Why is the UK still leaking methane from oil and gas production?
Methane also leaks from oil and gas production in the North Sea, as well as downstream distribution pipelines. With the European gas crisis expected to continue for years, this a scandalous waste of a resource that we could be using for energy. As the International Energy Agency has shown, there are relatively easy ways to remove at least 72 per cent of the methane emissions in the UK energy sector. Norway banned routine flaring as long ago as the 1970s, but weak legislation means the UK still allows venting and flaring. With current high gas prices, UK oil and gas producers shouldn’t need further incentives to deal with this problem, but the government should not let them off the hook.
Agriculture has the hardest challenge and the furthest to go. As the largest methane emitting sector, it must take urgent action. Methane emissions from livestock farming (mostly from manure management and the stomachs of ruminants like cows and sheep) have been stubbornly high for decades. Reducing consumption of meat and dairy, partly by switching to alternative proteins but also by rebalancing towards healthier diets with more fruit and vegetables, will be part of the solution. Methane suppressing feed additives and better slurry management are techno-fixes that can help substantially. By combining these interventions, UK agricultural methane emissions could fall by a quarter.
The UK can magnify action by helping other countries on methane
Action at home is important but, as we know, climate change knows no borders and nobody wins unless we all do. By sharing technology and expertise, the UK could have even greater impact on the global reduction of methane emissions. For example, landfill methane is a major challenge in Latin America. Capturing 70 per cent of methane from landfills across Central and South American countries would cut global emissions by at least four million tons, twice the 2020 UK total. Rice cultivation is a major source of methane elsewhere, making up 12 per cent of global emissions. By factoring action on methane into preferential trade deals, the UK could stimulate more efficient rice production in countries like China and India, with sustainable rice intensification able to reduce emissions by up to 50 times the UK domestic total.
As the COP27 climate conference progresses, Egypt is right to celebrate its own success in tackling methane. There is also pressure on countries that have yet to sign the Global Methane Pledge, like China, India and some EU member states. As champions of the pledge, the US is likely to point to where progress has and hasn’t been made. This is the UK’s chance to avoid the shame of being called out for its inaction and showcase a comprehensive and ambitious plan for methane as it hands over the COP presidency to Egypt.