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Tackling methane emissions is vital to keeping a 1.5°C future in sight

23 February 2022, 19:24 UTC 4 min read

Ellie Peichel

Attention at climate negotiations like COP26 has shed a spotlight on methane - and for good reason. Although this has been a largely invisible climate issue, it is in fact responsible for a third of the global warming caused by human activities and needs to be tackled with urgency.  

Methane gained international recognition during COP26 in the form of the Global Methane Pledge, which has been well received across the climate community. Countries joining the pledge commit to a collective goal of reducing global methane emissions by at least 30% from 2020 levels before 2030, with a particular focus on high emissions sources. This year the focus will be on recruiting more supporters for the pledge and ensuring pledges translate to action.  

Although carbon emissions make up 76% of global emissions, the short-lived climate pollutant (SLCP), methane, is capable of warming the atmosphere 80 times faster than the longer-lived carbon dioxide over the next 20 years. The short life-cycle of methane emissions provides a golden opportunity to help limit global temperature rise right away if it is properly addressed. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report states that reducing SLCPs, like methane, can contribute significantly to limit warming to 1.5°C in the short term. If we slash anthropogenic methane emissions by 50% over the next 30 years, we could reduce global temperature change by 0.18°C by 2050. This may not seem significant, but that is around a decade's worth of emissions. That means, if we act now, we have the potential to address an entire decade of global warming. 

Whereas carbon emissions take centuries to break down, methane emissions spend approximately a decade in the atmosphere. This gives subnational governments a chance to reduce methane emissions fast. In fact, states and regions have already been showing leadership on methane – and it is crucial they continue to do so rather than waiting for federal action. In 2019, the Under2 Coalition launched its Methane Project: a forum for state and regional governments to share effective ways to reduce methane emissions, beginning with a focus on the oil and gas sector. We have continued to prioritize this work. At COP26 in Glasgow, we facilitated a high-level panel in the Methane Moment pavilion and made methane a focus at our General Assembly meeting of international governments. At one of the panels, Karen Ross, Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, remarked on the importance of subnational governments working together: 

“There’s no reason to wait. You can build momentum by joining these kinds of coalitions, learning from one another, and tailoring it a bit more to your own state and your own situation."

Karen Ross, Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture

Policy action and regulations at the national and subnational levels are critical for achieving these goals. State and regional governments can respond quickly to the opportunity to tackle methane emissions; they are uniquely positioned to implement fast, effective, and tailored responses that address the needs of their communities. Under2 Coalition Co-Chair, California, has had long-standing methane policies in place since the California Global Warming Solutions Act was passed. The legislation includes increased monitoring of natural gas pipelines and storage facilities to prevent leaks, requirements for methane capture at landfills, and a statewide target to cut methane pollution 40% below 2013 levels by 2030.  

Under2 Coalition member, British Columbia, has been targeting methane since 2008. The province recognizes the urgency of the moment and the ability of federal regulation to change. Setting the precedent for federal action, British Columbia committed to a 75% reduction by 2030 and strives to effectively eliminate methane emissions from the oil and gas industry by 2035. British Columbia has worked to drive methane emission reduction through new regulations, preventative measures and guidelines, research efforts, incentive programs, and the increased adoption of clean, renewable energy.

“What California and BC were really successful in doing was charting a path forward which federal governments actually have caught up to. If you are a small subnational government like BC, find like-minded partner jurisdictions, build that coalition, and move. That makes it very difficult for your federal government not to follow.”

Jeremy Hewitt, Assistant Deputy Minister for Climate Change, British Columbia

Crucially, both California and British Columbia have developed roadmaps to guide their policies on methane and it is necessary that federal policies do the same. Without a clear guide for when and how emissions will be reduced – and across which sectors – it is hard to see what the result will be. For example, recent federal plans focus heavily on the oil and gas sector, but fail to lay out any enforceable standards for methane reduction from agricultural facilities – despite the fact that a staggering percentage of global methane emissions come from food production. In the US alone, food production accounts for 36% of the country’s methane emissions, surpassing that of the coal and gas industry which generates 30%. California’s regulators tackle those emissions with incentive programs: funding efforts to capture and convert methane from agricultural waste to feed it into natural gas pipelines. 

Incentives play an important role in climate change mitigation, but they are not enough on their own. Without examining agriculture and developing concrete strategies to reduce methane emissions within this sector, we will miss a critical opportunity to prevent further catastrophic impacts of climate change. In other words, subnational governments cannot act alone: they need federal support to catalyze action across sectors when it comes to methane. As with other aspects of climate change, it is also vital to combine incentive approaches with rigorous legislative frameworks that stop the worst offenders from polluting. 

We do not yet have all the answers to reducing methane emissions but state and regional governments, like California and British Columbia, are setting the standard for federal action and showing what can be done when the will is there. If all levels of governments work together, there is much that could be done to keep the world on a 1.5°C trajectory and keep the worst impacts of climate change at bay.