Drastic methane emissions cuts would also deliver public health, food security, and economic benefits.
“Immediate” cuts to global methane emissions from fossil fuel production could prevent nearly one million premature deaths by 2050, a new study suggested.
The latest International Energy Agency (IEA) report, published Wednesday in partnership with the Climate and Clean Air Coalition as well as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), builds on the findings of the recently updated Net Zero Roadmap, which suggested that the “staggering” growth in clean energy technologies in recent years – including solar panels and electric vehicles – indicates that there is still a chance to limit global warming to 1.5C.
Methane, a greenhouse gas about 84 times more potent in trapping heat than carbon dioxide (CO2) over a two-decade period and with a global warming potential 25 times more than that of CO2, contributed to about 3% of the rise in global temperatures since the onset of the Industrial Revolution.
Global methane emissions have been on the rise, with an annual increase of 14 parts per billion in atmospheric methane in 2022, the fourth-largest annual increase recorded since measurements began in 1983. Atmospheric methane levels are also shown to be 162% higher than pre-industrial levels, alarming the scientific community.
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Besides fossil fuels, agriculture and waste are two other huge sources of methane, responsible for 40% and 20% of global anthropogenic methane emission, respectively, according to the 2021 Global Methane Assessment (GMA). The GMA underpinned the Global Methane Pledge by illustrating the various, readily available measures to achieve the goal of cutting emissions by 30% by 2030 from 2020 levels, the minimum required to limit warming to 1.5C. Under the current scenario, however, total methane emissions could rise by up to 13% between 2020 and 2030, according to the IEA.
Wednesday’s report emphasises the urgency of cutting methane emissions, the overwhelming majority of which come from fossil fuel production, in order to curb the worst impacts of warming. According to the IEA, cuts in methane emissions from fossil fuel operations would need to provide at least half of the reduction in overall methane emissions stemming from polluting human activities, if the world wants to meet the Paris Agreement targets.
Besides preventing nearly one million premature deaths due to ozone exposure, immediate, drastic methane emissions cuts would also avoid about 90 million metric tons of crop losses and about 85 billion hours of labour that would be lost due to exposure to extreme heat, generating roughly US$260 billion in direct economic benefits through mid-century, the IEA said.
“Reducing methane emissions from the energy sector is one of the best – and most affordable – opportunities to limit global warming in the near term,” said Fatih Birol, IEA Executive Director. “Early actions by governments and industry to drive down methane emissions need to go hand-in-hand with reductions in fossil fuel demand and CO2 emissions. This report sets out the clear case for strong, swift action.”
Nevertheless, cutting fossil fuels operations alone would not be enough to limit global warming below the crucial threshold of 1.5C. Instead, the IEA argues that other actions should be taken, including eliminating routine venting and flaring and repairing leaks.
Methane leakage refers to the unintentional and involuntary release of gas, while venting refers to the intentional and controlled release of it. Leakage occurs most likely in aged equipment and facilities which lack regular and proper maintenance, whereas venting is done to dispose of gases that lack value. Natural gas flaring is another intentional release of methane, defined as the controlled combustion of natural gas for operational, safety, or economic reasons.
“Cutting methane doesn’t let us off the hook to make good on the just energy transition. But cutting methane is a low hanging fruit while we work on the overall decarbonization of our economies in tandem with supporting our societies to build greater resilience,” Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP, said in a statement. “Investments in maintenance and operational changes that prevent methane from leaking into the atmosphere are a fraction of profits made from fossil fuels. This is in stark contrast to the cost of inaction, from crop productivity losses, to impacts on human health and the economy.”
To achieve the IEA’s Net Zero Emissions by 2050 scenario, countries have to halt all new oil and gas projects as well as coal mines extensions, according to the report. The pressure is on world leaders to make the necessary changes as they prepare to convene in Dubai for the long-awaited COP28 summit, set to begin in just a few weeks.
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