Methane matters

Decarbonisation alone won’t solve the climate crisis. In the scramble to prevent average temperatures climbing more than 1.5°C within the next 20 years, we meed to slash methane emissions too.

Decarbonisation alone won’t solve the climate crisis. In the scramble to prevent average temperatures climbing more than 1.5°C within the next 20 years, the authors of last week’s landmark IPCC report highlighted the need to act quickly to slash methane emissions too. To get out of this rapidly heating greenhouse, we need to start picking the low-hanging fruit. Methane is one.

The potential:

  • Cutting methane emissions by 45 per cent this decade could prevent a temperature rise of 0.3°C globally as early as the 2040s.
  • Methane has a warming potential more than 80 times that of CO2, and a lifetime in the atmosphere of about a decade. Consequently, if methane emissions stopped today the warming they caused would eventually reduce. Not so with CO2, which lingers in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. Reaching net zero CO2 wouldn’t actually bring down the level of CO2-induced warming but – and here’s the good news from the report – it would stop its rise.
  • Most of the technology to cut methane emissions already exists at low cost. The quickest wins lie in fixing leaky pipelines, putting a stop to flaring by energy companies, and better livestock management. 

What to do: 

  • Only 13 countries have methane emissions targets in their climate plans. Advancing a global agreement on methane at Cop 26 ought to hold a non-negotiable place on Alok Sharma’s to-do list (74 days until Glasgow, for those counting). Boris Johnson’s new Cop slogan of “coal, cars, cash and trees” needs two extra syllables.
  • When it comes to leaks, Russia is chief culprit. As the major importer of Russian heavy gas, the EU needs to regulate a clean-up. Sales from excess gas captured could pay for upgrading infrastructure and then some.
  • You can’t mitigate a problem you can’t measure. Satellite technology can accurately identify leaks, but energy companies – if they want their transition pledges taken seriously – need to be more transparent when counting methane emissions, including those from exploratory drilling and old wells. Last year the Tortoise Responsibility 100 Index revealed that several FTSE100 companies were excluding methane emissions from “non-producing” activities in their top-line figures.

The caveat:

  • Make no mistake, CO2 emissions remain enemy number one. Cutting methane will not buy time in that fight, but it could make a vital difference to the frequency of wildfires and extreme weather events in the short-term.

The need to act is written in ashes and smoke from the Greek island of Evia to the North Pole. Not incidentally, the need for a specific and achievable goal for Cop 26 is now acute, and methane answers it. 


Net zero factionalism
The cost of net zero is a growing source of factionalism within the UK’s Conservative party. Last week, MPs expressed anxiety over how green policies are playing with “red wall” voters, while Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, is said to be arguing with Number Ten over funding for the energy transition. The Climate Change Committee puts the cost of decarbonisation at 1 per cent of GDP per year. The WWF reckons current policies cost just 0.01 per cent. With updated strategies for hydrogen and heating buildings due in the autumn, a briefing back-and-forth between No 10 and the Treasury is already underway. The Times says Johnson is set to announce a new boiler scrappage scheme. Pricetag: £400 million. That is money Sunak needs to find whether he likes it or not. 

Science and Tech

Dam nation
China’s attempts to control its rivers have mired it in a catch-22. In a late bid to protect waterways, officials want to demolish thousands of badly-planned dams. The trouble is, many of them produce hydroelectric power, which by one estimate needs to double if the country is to meet its 2060 net zero target. The flow of China’s longest river, the Yangtze, is checked by more than 24,000 hydropower stations – 930 of which were built without an environmental assessment. Removing them will be an expensive, gargantuan task. China knows all too well the human toll of dam failure (see the 1975 Banqiao dam disaster). The question is what will it pay, in terms of cash and carbon, to avoid more?

Engagement and activism

Fossil fuel funders
“Stop investing in climate killers”: so read one of the banners held aloft by climate protesters marching outside the European Central Bank’s headquarters in Frankfurt last week. A German chapter of Fridays for Future, the climate protest movement founded by Greta Thunberg, organised the demonstration against the financial sector’s funding of fossil fuel projects. A March 2021 report on fossil fuel financing, published by a coalition of six environmental NGOs, found that the world’s 60 largest banks have given out $3.8 trillion in financing for coal, oil and gas companies since the Paris climate deal in 2015. In principle that could soon be dwarfed by green energy investments. In practice many of them will be more greenwash than green.


No more Cambo?
Nicola Sturgeon wrote to Boris Johnson last week asking him to “reassess” oil and gas licences issued for sites in the North Sea, among them the Cambo oilfield, ahead of Cop 26 in Glasgow. Cambo lies 125 km north-west of Shetland and holds estimated reserves of up to 800 million barrels. The licence to explore the site was granted in 2011, but drilling hasn’t started yet. Environmental groups say it never should. Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth Scotland criticised Sturgeon for stopping short of calling for an end to all new drilling. Still, these are probably the strongest words yet from Sturgeon on Scotland’s position in the climate crisis: “We cannot rest on business as usual in the face of a climate emergency,” she wrote. True.

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Thanks for reading.

Barney Macintyre

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