A recent high-level report on global methane emissions has found that the world could reduce the expected warming of Earth by 0.3°C through a combination of specific policy interventions. The Government of Canada should seize the opportunity by rallying the international community to meet this challenge at the upcoming ‘COP 26’ climate talks in Scotland, slated for later this year.
The report, published by the Climate & Clean Air Coalition and the UN Environment Program, found that readily available technologies and cost-effective measures could see annual global methane emissions reductions of 30% by the end of this decade. By implementing these accessible reductions, the planet would avoid 0.2°C of warming by mid-century. By adopting additional slightly costlier measures, we could achieve a 45% reduction in methane emissions by 2030, resulting in 0.3°C of avoided warming.
Methane, also known as “Natural Gas,” or CH4, is a challenging greenhouse gas from a policy point of view. It is far more potent than CO2 in trapping heat within our atmosphere (causing 84 times as much warming as CO2 over 20 years). At the same time, it is much more fleeting than CO2, breaking down naturally within the atmosphere after about 12 years. This means that increases in methane emissions make it especially difficult to meet our mid-Century climate targets. Decreases in methane emissions can have a pronounced near-term effect on the climate. To put it differently, even modest reductions in methane emissions could yield tangible results in our climate system that we could see within our lifetimes.
The first 30% of proposed methane reductions are a “no brainer.” These are achieved through low-cost (and in some cases negative cost) measures that primarily target leakage in the oil and gas and waste management sectors. It involves simple things like better detection and prevention of methane leaks in the fossil fuel sector, improved waste management processes (i.e. diverting organic waste from landfills), and improving livestock health and feed quality (which in turn makes the livestock sector more efficient). However, the following 15% reductions will be a little harder to achieve because they may impose costs or require behavioural changes. For instance, phasing out coal and gas-fired electricity and replacing it with renewables would help reduce CH4 emissions but requires considerable capital expenditures and social policies to support energy transition. Reducing the consumption of ruminant food products (like beef and dairy) could also help reduce methane emissions but may be difficult to achieve in countries where high beef and dairy consumption rates have become an entrenched part of the diet.
A global methane reduction strategy would thus have to be attuned to geographical, economic and cultural differences between regions. In some parts of the world (such as China), phasing out coal-fired electricity would serve as the most helpful contribution to methane abatement. In others (such as South Asia and Brazil), cutting down on ruminant emissions is paramount. In North America, the Middle East, and Russia, methane abatement within the oil and gas sector is the easiest and most significant way to contribute to the challenge.
It is also essential that policymakers ensure efforts to reduce CH4 emissions are consistent with policies to stop CO2 emissions altogether, while recognizing the different characteristics of these two GHGs. There is concern from some climate scientists about the potential dangers of treating the two gases as interchangeable. This simply means we need to be careful in our policy efforts to consider possible trade-offs from efforts to reduce methane. For instance, if the removal of farmed ruminants from grassland ecosystems results in growing numbers of wild ruminants, methane emissions will continue as before. Similarly, suppose efforts to switch out natural gas as a heating fuel for electric heat is not paired with green electricity production policies; in that case, net emissions may not be reduced (in fact, they may increase if the electricity is produced by coal).
Canada can and should play an essential role in global methane abatement. First, it ought to serve as a positive example by adopting a more ambitious domestic strategy for methane reductions; second, it should rally the international community to take urgent action on methane. Canada already has some experience in this regard: In 2017, it joined forces with the UK to launch the Powering Past Coal Alliance, which seeks to phase out coal production globally. The upcoming climate talks in Scotland in November thus serve as a golden opportunity to develop a concerted global methane reduction plan. By arriving at the meetings with a more ambitious methane reduction plan, Canada could encourage other nations to step up to the plate. There is a reasonably straightforward 0.3°C of avoided global warming up for the taking!