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Global Methane Pledge: It's a Start

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Methane moved to the fore last week as world leaders and diplomats met for UN climate talks in Glasgow. Dozens of countries joined the US-EU-backed Global Methane Pledge, bringing to over 100 the number promising to slash methane emissions at least 30% from 2020 levels by 2030.

Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, but far more short-lived, so tackling it quickly could help curb global warming sooner. Oil and gas producers are under mounting pressure from investors and other stakeholders to act or risk their social license to operate.

Huge Uncertainties

Beyond the pledge itself, however, uncertainty abounds. There is ambiguity over the current level of methane emissions and how precisely governments plan to rein them in. Another issue is who signed on — and who didn't. The pledge includes five of the world's 10 biggest methane emitters, based on Climatewatch data from 2018: The US, Brazil, Indonesia, Pakistan and Mexico. But the top three — China, Russia and India — are missing, as are Iran and Australia. And there is currently no mechanism to ensure signatories embed the targets in national climate plans.

“What struck me first was how poor the methane inventories are around the world,” says Debbie Gordon, senior principal for oil and gas solutions at RMI (formerly Rocky Mountain Institute).

Official measures of methane releases are widely believed to be inaccurate. The gas is difficult to detect, and countries’ methods for measuring methane and other greenhouse gases can lead to a dramatic undercounting, according to a Washington Post analysis on Nov. 8. When it comes to methane, academic or other outside organizations often observe emissions far higher than government estimates.

Who's Doing What?

The EU is prioritizing detection and reporting through new tools such as the International Methane Emissions Observatory (IMEO). Later this month, the European Commission plans to "introduce rules to measure, to report, to verify methane emissions, rules to put limits on venting and flaring, and rules to detect leaks and repair them." Brussels says IMEO will produce a public global data set of empirically verified methane emissions — starting with the fossil fuel industry — at an "increasing level of granularity and accuracy" by integrating data principally from four streams: reporting from the Oil and Gas Methane Partnership 2.0 (OGMP 2.0), oil and gas companies, direct measurement data from scientific studies, remote sensing data and national inventories.

The US rolled out new regulations on the energy sector last week, aimed at reining in methane emissions from extraction to distribution. The Environmental Protection Agency plans emissions standards for new and existing oil and gas operations, as well as new standards for storage tanks. The US Department of Interior will also issue regulations governing venting and flaring on federal lands, and the national pipeline regulator plans to tackle leaks from about 3 million miles of pipeline.

Reaching the target could be a challenge for Latin American signatories Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and Colombia if political and economic uncertainties trump environmental concerns.

Brazil’s low-carbon plans, based heavily on greater use of renewables, will likely progress even amid proposals to ramp up pre-salt oil production. But Mexico’s plans to boost domestic energy supply could continue to take precedence over climate concerns as the government looks to secure votes.

Colombia, which hopes to become carbon neutral by 2050, has unveiled a hydrogen road map and plans to cut CO2 emissions 51% from 2014 levels by 2030. Alberto Fernandez, the president of Argentina, called for action on methane and other greenhouse gases to be integrated into national debt repayment plans so climate goals aren't sacrificed for economic growth.

In Pakistan, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on climate change Malik Amin Aslam called the pledge "one of those tools which can really assist us in avoiding the tipping point on climate change." Ahead of COP26, Pakistan beefed up its climate plan with pledges to generate 60% of domestic energy from renewables by 2030 and convert 30% of transport to electric vehicles.

Indonesia's commitment may be questionable. The country’s environment minister dismissed as “inappropriate and unfair” a global plan to end deforestation by 2030 only days after Indonesia joined 127 other countries in the deforestation pledge, prompting skepticism about broader climate commitments.

The Holdouts

Among the big holdouts, analysts say China approaches climate action differently from many Western countries — it makes only modest promises, but arguably pursues strong, methodical implementation. The ecology and environment ministry says the government believes in “taking concrete actions to deliver on promises” rather than making “empty slogans or ambitious targets.”

Officials say India didn't sign up because of concerns over the impact on trade, the country's vast farm sector, and the role of livestock in the rural economy.

Some analysts say Russia didn't sign on because China and India didn't either. Such commitments would require more expensive steps to deal with methane from mines and leaks from oil and gas fields. The government prefers to focus on energy efficiency and energy savings, and fighting forest fires, although Russian firms like Rosneft have made their own emissions reduction pledges.

Australia's Energy Minister Angus Taylor said it did not join because "we've got a net-zero goal, we're not setting sector-specific targets, and we aren't setting gas-specific targets. It's the entirety of gases that matters … that's our specific goal."

Iran is one of the few countries yet to ratify the Paris climate accord, and nongovernmental organization Climate Action Tracker rates its climate policy “critically insufficient.” Tehran has made it clear mitigation targets will not be implemented if international sanctions are in place.

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