The World Finally Agrees to Cut Emissions the Easy Way
Now can we talk about the hard stuff?
Today is Methane Day at COP28 in Dubai, and there has been a slew of new commitments to wrangle the highly potent, short-lived greenhouse gas:
➢ The Biden administration finalized the strongest-ever federal regulations in the U.S. covering the methane that leaks from existing oil and gas wells, plus tightened rules for new wells. The Environmental Protection Agency expects to achieve a nearly 80% reduction in emissions compared to a world without the rules.
➢ Canada is also expected to announce new methane regulations.
➢ Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan — home to some of the biggest methane leaks from oil and gas operations in recent years — joined a global pledge to reduce methane emissions by 30% this decade. If the pledge is successful, it could eliminate more than 0.2 degrees Celsius of warming by 2050.
➢ Nearly 50 oil and gas companies signed onto a “decarbonization charter,” committing to reduce the ratio of methane released to fuels produced to 0.2% by 2030, and to capture the gas instead of flaring it. For reference, the current methane intensity of U.S. oil and gas production is about 2.5%.
➢ A new partnership between Bloomberg Philanthropies, the United Nations Environment Program, the Environmental Defense Fund, the International Energy Agency, and RMI will use satellite data and analysis of leaks to hold companies and governments — in particular the oil and gas charter members — to their pledges.
➢ All of this follows a new methane deal from the European Union to reduce methane leaks at home and, by 2030, require companies importing oil and gas to the EU to meet a standard for emissions associated with their product.
➢ China also recently released a methane action plan, and agreed for the first time to include non-carbon dioxide greenhouse gases like methane in its emissions targets. The country is a co-host of the Summit on Methane and Other Non-CO2 Greenhouse Gases at COP28 today.
This is not the first time many of these groups have pledged to address methane, which leaks into the atmosphere from oil and gas infrastructure, coal mines, landfills, and farms. But taken together, today’s actions bring more ambition, transparency, and accountability to the task.
During a press briefing on Friday morning, U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry told reporters that reducing methane emissions is the “easiest, quickest, cheapest, simplest” way to fight climate change. There’s two reasons for that. First, since methane begins breaking down in the atmosphere after about a decade (unlike CO2, which can last hundreds of years), cutting methane emissions will reduce warming significantly in the near-term. Second, experts say that reducing leaks from oil and gas infrastructure is both technologically doable and cost-effective. “It’s not complicated technology,” Kerry said. “It’s mostly plumbing.”
But for an issue that’s so easy to address, the scourge on methane has sucked up a lot of oxygen in the climate conversation over the past five years, especially in the U.S. Writing about “the quickest way to slow warming” has become a tired cliché for climate journalists, me included. Ever since scientists at the Environmental Defense Fund reported that methane emissions from oil and gas production were being severely undercounted in 2018, attention to methane by environmental groups, researchers, the U.S. government, and even the oil and gas industry has steadily risen. But so have methane emissions, according to some estimates.
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The Obama administration first tried to regulate emissions from existing wells and tighten standards for new wells in 2016. Then the industry sued. Trump rolled back the rules. The Biden administration tried again in 2021, proposing new rules during COP26 in Glasgow and spearheading the Global Methane Pledge. One year later, during COP27, the Biden administration issued yet another proposal to “update, strengthen, and expand on” the original. Now that the rules are finalized, some won’t even go into effect for another two years so that states have time to develop plans to adhere to the regulations on existing wells.
It does look like this moment is different — that this could be a real turning point. Engineers have made great advances in methane detection technology. Satellites, drones, and handheld detectors have turned up “super-emitters,” astoundingly large leaks from oil and gas operations all over the world that would have otherwise gone unnoticed and unaddressed.
During the Friday morning press briefing, billionaire philanthropist Michael Bloomberg, who is putting $40 million toward the new watchdog effort to hold companies accountable, promised this would not be “just another announcement.” He pointed to his Beyond Coal campaign, which successfully shut down 70% of U.S. coal plants over the past five years. Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, said there will finally be transparency. “Without transparency, all we have is pledges,” she said.
So the world may finally be moving in concert to address methane, this lowest hanging fruit, this bare minimum, this fastest way to slow warming. Well, la-di-da. Now that there’s some consensus on methane, will there be more room to talk about the harder stuff? Like, the root cause of climate change? Like, ending the use of oil and gas, and — god help us — coal?
The U.S. committed today to finally phasing out the dirtiest fossil fuel, but other countries — notably India — are still digging in their heels. Andersen mentioned a report the UNEP released in November, which found that the majority of oil and gas producers plan to increase their production between now and 2030, and some until 2050.
“The addiction to fossil fuels still has its claws deep in many nations,” the report says. “Governments are planning to produce, and the world is planning to consume, over double the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than is consistent with the pathway to limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C. These plans throw the global energy transition into question. They throw humanity’s future into question.”
Yes, cutting methane emissions from oil and gas operations will stave off worse climate impacts, buying the world some time as it tackles the much harder challenge of phasing out fossil fuels. But it also gives fossil fuel companies a new defensive weapon as we enter this next stage of climate action. They will be able to say their products are cleaner — perhaps even that we should thank them for helping the world avoid 0.2 degrees C of warming while their plans “throw humanity’s future into question.” To make progress beyond methane, we’ll need to get from pledges to action a lot more quickly.
This story has been updated.
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