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Tackling Methane Emissions is More Crucial Than Carbon Dioxide, Study Suggests

Methane is responsible for 30 percent of today's global warming after carbon dioxide, ranking it second based on its contribution to climate change.
However, methane can be captured more effectively than CO2, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Despite methane being present in much lower concentrations in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, it is 84 times more potent as a greenhouse gas. The IEA explains this means methane is much more efficient at trapping heat, significantly contributing to global warming. Yet, it remains in the atmosphere for only about twelve years, implying that reducing anthropogenic (human-caused) methane emissions can notably slow down climate change.


In today's atmosphere, 40 percent of methane occurs naturally, while the remaining is pollution caused by human activity. A third of this anthropogenic portion, or 20 percent of the total methane, comes from the energy sector production, transport, and the use of oil, gas, coal, and the natural gas itself, which comprises 70-90 percent methane.

Methane harms not only the climate and environment but also poses a severe health risk as a local air pollutant and contributor to ozone formation in abnormally high concentrations in the atmosphere.

According to IEA estimates, about 70 percent of methane emissions from fossil fuel operations can be reduced using existing technology, and around 40 percent can be done at no net cost. Significant emissions arise from pipeline leaks at compressor stations and the harmful and excessive practices of flaring and venting, where excess natural gas is either inefficiently burned off or released into the atmosphere to dispose of it.


Given the existing technology, cost-effectiveness, and methane's short atmospheric lifespan, reducing methane emissions offers the most immediate opportunity for slowing down global warming in the short-term. This action is desperately required as the EU, following measures from December 2019, aims to reduce its net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030, with the goal of reaching complete climate neutrality by 2050. For this purpose, the bloc suggests numerous measures, including efforts to cut methane emissions.


In October 2020, the European Commission published its strategy focusing on reducing methane emissions across the energy, agriculture, and waste sectors while also promoting intersectoral synergies, such as biogas production. Biogas represents a sustainable substitute for fossil gas, which can be stored, distributed, and used in the same infrastructure. Although emissions from biogas are comparable to those of fossil gas, biogas production captures harmful gases from raw materials and prevents them from reaching the atmosphere. The Commission's REPowerEU plan presented in May 2022 emphasizes the importance of biogas and biomethane by targeting an annual production of 35 billion cubic meters by 2030.

The methane strategy proposed new EU rules on the subject, and in December 2021, the Commission adopted a legislative proposal to reduce methane emissions in the energy sector.

An interim agreement was reached in November 2023, and once officially published this year, the resulting regulation will be effective 20 days later in all EU member states.

"This landmark agreement allows us to seriously address greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector (...), reducing methane emissions cost-effectively, managing venting and flaring. The latter makes little sense from an economic and environmental protection standpoint. It serves the well-being of our planet and avoids wasting resources in a tight global gas market," quoted the agency's report citing Kadri Simson, the Energy Commissioner.


Besides EU-level actions, global efforts are necessary to tackle methane emissions as the EU is accountable for only 6 percent of global, energy-related methane release. Starting at the end of 2024, the methane emission regulation requires fossil fuel importers to report methane emission data to be published in an EU database containing performance profiles of countries from 2026 onwards.

Methane measurement, reporting, and verification standards will be applied from 2027, with a methane intensity standard for imports following a review by 2030.

The Global Methane Pledge, launched by Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, and U.S. President Joe Biden at the 2021 COP26 in Glasgow, has 155 signatories committed to reducing global methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030. Over fifty of these countries have developed national methane action plans to implement the pledge, with more preparing to do so. At COP28 in December 2023, von der Leyen announced a €175 million boost for the Methane Finance Sprint to assist in decreasing global methane emissions and executing the mentioned pledge. A significant portion of this funding will go towards gathering data on methane, measuring and tracking the gas, and supporting the relevant technologies.

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