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Climate Change

COP28 turns attention to potent methane emissions, as UN warns about rising temperatures

The crucial summit will start in Dubai next week.

CLIMATE TALKS OFTEN revolve around reducing the most dangerous greenhouse gas CO2.

But other powerful heat-trapping emissions — of methane — are also likely to be in the crosshairs of negotiators at the crucial COP28 meeting in Dubai next week.

The crucial summit will take place from 30 November to 12 December.

Methane — which is potent but relatively short-lived — is a key target for countries wanting to slash emissions quickly and slow climate change.

That is particularly because large amounts of methane are simply leaking into the atmosphere from fossil fuel infrastructure.

What is methane? 

Atmospheric methane (CH4) occurs abundantly in nature as the primary component of natural gas.

It is the second largest contributor to climate change, accounting for around 16% of the warming effect.

Methane remains in the atmosphere for only about 10 years, but has a much more powerful warming impact than CO2.

Its warming effect is 28 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year timescale (and 80 times over 20 years).

Exactly how much methane is released in the atmosphere remains subject to “significant uncertainty”, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), despite progress in the monitoring of emissions through the use of satellites.

And scientists are puzzling over a steady increase of methane in the atmosphere, with concentrations currently over two-and-a-half times greater than pre-industrial levels.

Gas leaks and cow burps 

The majority of methane emissions — around 60% — are linked to human activity, the IEA says, while some 40% is from natural sources, mainly wetlands.

Agriculture is the biggest culprit, responsible for roughly a quarter of emissions.

Most of that is from livestock — cows and sheep release methane during digestion and in their manure — and rice cultivation, where flooded fields create ideal conditions for methane-emitting bacteria.

Screenshot 2023-11-21 101647 Andreu Esteban / AP/PA Images Earth's temperatures could warm by up to a catastrophic 2.9 degrees Celsius this century, the UN has warned Andreu Esteban / AP/PA Images / AP/PA Images

The energy sector — coal, oil and gas — is the second largest source of human caused methane emissions.

Methane leaks from energy infrastructure — such as gas pipelines — and from deliberate releases during maintenance.

Discarded household waste also releases large quantities of methane when it decomposes, if left to rot in landfills.

What can be done? 

A recent IEA report estimates that rapid cuts in methane emissions linked to the fossil fuel sector could prevent up to 0.1 degrees Celsius of warming by mid-century.

That might sound like a modest reduction, but such a reduction would have an impact greater than “immediately taking all cars and trucks in the world off the road”, the report authors said.

IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol called it “one of the best and most affordable” options for reducing global warming.

It could be achieved by repairing leaky infrastructure and eliminating routine flaring and venting during pipeline maintenance.

“Leakage is far too high in many areas where natural gas is extracted but some countries, notably Norway, have shown that it is possible to extract and supply natural gas with minimal levels of leakage,” Energy Programme Director William Gillett at the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) told AFP.

In the case of agriculture, it is possible to modify animal diets by, for example, adding a compound to improve their health and that of the planet.

For rice fields, changes to water management are the “most promising” way to reduce emissions, according to a FAO report.

A joint EU-US ‘Global Methane Pledge’ was launched in 2021, aiming to reduce worldwide methane emissions by 30% by 2030, compared to 2020 levels.

Some 150 countries – including all European Union member states and the US – have signed on, but China, India and Russia were noticeably absent.

UN warning 

Countries’ greenhouse gas-cutting pledges put Earth on track for warming far beyond key limits, potentially up to a catastrophic 2.9 degrees Celsius this century, the UN said yesterday, warning “we are out of road”.

The UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) annual Emissions Gap report stated: “The world is witnessing a disturbing acceleration in the number, speed and scale of broken climate records.”

Taking into account countries’ carbon-cutting plans, UNEP warned that the planet is on a path for disastrous heating of between 2.5C and 2.9C by 2100. Based just on existing policies and emissions-cutting efforts, global warming would reach 3C.

But the world continues to pump record levels of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, with emissions up 1.2 percent from 2021 to 2022, UNEP said, adding that the increase was largely driven by the burning of fossil fuels and industrial processes.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for the COP28 talks to outline “dramatic climate action”.

“Leaders can’t kick the can any further. We’re out of road,” he said, denouncing a “failure of leadership, a betrayal of the vulnerable, and a massive missed opportunity”.

He said the world “must reverse course” and called for a clear signal at the COP28 meeting that the world was preparing for a decisive move away from polluting coal, oil and gas.

© AFP 2023