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16 Dec Tackling the Other Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Methane
The conversation around decarbonization and climate change mitigation has long been dominated by the reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2), the most common greenhouse gas. However, during this year’s United Nations climate summit COP26, methane as another form of greenhouse gas rose to the spotlight in international climate discussions. Over 100 countries signed the US and EU-launched Global Methane Pledge, which commits them to lower global methane emissions by 30% from a 2020 baseline by 2030. Simultaneously, the United States and China, two of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases, released the US-China Joint Climate Declaration which explicitly highlighted methane emissions reduction as both nations’ climate commitment. The two countries recognized the significant role methane emissions play in climate change and stated intentions to cooperate in enhancing methane measurement, exchange policy information on methane management and control, and foster research in methane emissions reduction solutions.
What made methane such a significant player in COP26? This article will provide a brief introduction to methane’s role in climate change, solutions to curb methane emissions, and China’s strategy to tackle methane as a greenhouse gas.
Methane as a Greenhouse Gas
Methane (CH4) is the second-largest contributor to human-induced climate change after CO2. Its global warming potential is around 80 times higher than that of CO2 in the first 20 years of release into the atmosphere. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s leading climate science committee, recently estimated that at least 25% of today’s warming is driven by human-induced methane emissions, contributing 0.5C degrees of warming from pre-industrial levels. However, while CO2 has a much longer lifespan, sustaining in the atmosphere between 300 to 1000 years once released, methane only lasts about 10 to 20 years in the atmosphere before it breaks down, making it a crucial player in near-term climate change. Compared to CO2 reduction, curbing methane emissions successfully could have an immediate effect on slowing global warming and provide a much-needed breakthrough for limiting global warming well below 2C.
There are many sources of methane emissions, roughly 60% of which come from human activities such as leaks in fossil fuel production, decay of organic matters in landfills, and raising livestock. According to research by the non-profit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), livestock contributes the largest share of methane emissions globally, responsible for 31% of the global total. The fossil fuel industry contributes around 26%. While rising demand for meat around the world makes methane emissions from livestock relatively difficult to curb, reduction of methane in the oil and gas industry is actionable and effective. The chart below illustrates the profile of methane emissions, including natural and human-induced sources.
Solutions to Curb Methane Emissions in Fossil Fuel Industries
Research from EDF estimates that existing technologies can reduce 57% of global methane emissions by 2030. Fossil fuel companies have good incentives to contain and abate methane leaks, since leak prevention enhances operational safety, optimizes natural gas production, and directly increases profits.
According to research from McKinsey, coal mining activities contribute to methane emissions mainly through working coal mines and abandoned deep mines. To abate such emissions, coal gasification is an effective way to capture methane from mines and use it for power generation. Oil and gas activities, on the other hand, contribute to methane emissions through venting, leaks from pipelines and equipment, and incomplete combustion in flaring. Therefore, one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to cut down on methane leaks in the oil and gas industry is retrofitting equipment, such as valves, pumps, motors, and seals. Deploying “zero-bleed” technologies enable motors to be operated by electrical power instead of pressurized natural gas when the latter continuously releases a small amount of gas in operation. In addition, vapor recovery units (VRUs) can be installed to capture emissions that build up in equipment such as oil storage tanks.
While methane leaks had been difficult to detect and regulate due to their odorless and colorless nature, advancing technologies now allow regulators to utilize drones and satellites to detect super emitters from space. Carbon Mapper, a public-private partnership in California, as well as MethaneSAT, an initiative of EDF, are launching satellite projects to collect data on methane leaks around the world. Carbon Mapper is developing one of the most sensitive and precise tools for methane detection to date, with support from partners such as NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the California Air Resources Board, as well as multiple universities and nonprofits. MethaneSAT expressed that the data and findings will be made available to industry operators, regulators, investors, and the public to hold emitters accountable from all sides.
China’s Methane Reduction Strategy
China is currently the largest emitter of human-caused methane, with an emission volume twice as much as the next two contributors, US and India. Most of China’s methane emissions come from coal mining, and the country’s coal-related methane emissions account for 70% of the global coal-related total, according to McKinsey. As a result, China has a crucial role to play in achieving significant methane emissions reduction.
The Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) has announced in November that it will examine methane emissions and set reduction targets in key industries such as coal mining, petroleum, natural gas, agriculture, solid waste, and sewage water treatment. Furthermore, according to China’s 14th five-year plan (FYP), the country is set to release a National Action Plan on methane emissions reduction in 2022, which will introduce a set of policies and guidelines to bolster development in the detection, accounting, reporting, and verification of methane emissions. Deputy Head of MEE’s climate change department Lu Xinming suggested that companies may be asked to leverage existing market infrastructures for methane control, such as a voluntary greenhouse gas emissions trading system. However, while national and regional carbon trading mechanisms are in place in China, methane is currently excluded from these markets.
While China did not join other countries in signing the Global Methane Pledge at COP26, the explicit mention of methane reduction ambition in the US-China Joint Climate Declaration showcased that China will not be absent from the movement. China’s updated Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the United Nations in 2021 stated that the country will take measures to effectively curb methane emissions from coal, oil and gas mining, such as rational control of coal production capacity, increase of gas extraction and utilization rate, control of volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions in the petrochemical industry, encouraged use of green completions, and application of technologies for recovering associated gas. In the past, policies on methane-related reporting and management were mostly concerned with production safety, not emissions control. Due to the lack of data consistency and quality, China’s initial focus is to survey the country’s methane emissions profile from key industries and build a robust measurement and reporting system in line with international best practices, before formulating concrete national targets on methane reduction for relevant sectors.