Scott Vaughan and Durwood Zaelke
OTTAWA/WASHINGTON, DC – In the fight against climate change, carbon dioxide attracts the bulk of regulators’ attention. But while long-lived CO2 is a key contributor to rising temperatures, it is not the only culprit. Other short-lived super pollutants are also warming the planet, and none is in greater need of regulation than methane.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, methane is 86 times more potent than CO2 as a heat-trapping gas over a 20-year period, and is responsible for about a fifth of the warming caused by humans. If the international community is to have any chance of meeting targets set by the Paris climate agreement and keep global warming well below 2°C above preindustrial levels, the control of methane must be a high priority. At the moment, however, that is not happening on a global scale, and only a handful of countries – led most recently by Canada – have committed to managing methane.
A recent report by the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) called methane an “intriguing” policy problem, because there is no dominant cause. Recent spikes in emissions have been attributed to a variety of sources, including forest fires and fermentation in rice fields.
Measuring methane, including by using today’s infrared cameras, is challenging. According to the NAS report, not even the United States has the tools to measure, monitor, and account for methane effectively. But improved measurement tools for detecting sources of methane are on the horizon, and are being successfully tested in California on low-flying planes, with the goal of perfecting the tools for use on satellites.
Even as we improve our tools for detecting methane leaks, we must pursue aggressive methane reductions. If the world follows the lead of methane-mitigation innovators like Canada and California, it is possible to make fast and dramatic reductions.
Three sectors need urgent regulatory attention, starting with the oil and gas industry. According to the International Energy Agency, improving methane capture in the oil and gas value chain would be cheap and effective, given that roughly half of the sector’s 76 million tons of annual methane emissions results from easily contained leaks. And, because methane is actually a marketable product, capturing it can be achieved at no net cost.
Second, methane emissions in agriculture, and especially in livestock farming, need tighter controls. Here, too, improved management has a strong economic rationale. For example, mandating the use of methane-capture devices such as anaerobic digesters would help farmers harness methane from cattle and pigs, providing a renewable source of energy generation that could replace fossil fuels used to power equipment.
Finally, governments at all levels should require the capture and use of methane emitted by landfills and wastewater treatment plants. With new methane-measurement practices, countries, cities, and companies could address sources of methane that are easily controlled, laying the groundwork for tougher challenges in the years ahead.
And yet, despite the availability of viable solutions, many countries continue to ignore the low-hanging fruit of methane mitigation. Two years after the US, Mexico, and Canada pledged to take collective action and reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector, progress has stalled. In the US, the Trump administration has exempted energy companies from methane capture during drilling, while Mexico has offered only non-binding pledges.
Fortunately, Canada is going in the other direction. Canadian regulators just released new rules aimed at reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas industry by as much as 45% over the next seven years. These rules solidify Canada as a global leader in methane-reduction efforts.
The rules also advance Canada’s national interests. Projections for the Arctic show that the region is warming at twice the global average and is losing reflective sea ice at a staggering pace. Without this icy shield to reflect heat back into space, warming accelerates, permafrost melts, and ancient stores of methane and CO2 are returned to the atmosphere. Not only does this cycle drive up global temperatures, it also threatens the survival of Canada’s northern communities.
Canada may have an added source of motivation for implementing new methane rules. But such rules amount to an opportunity to help countries and cities around the world recommit to methane-mitigation strategies. When Canada hosts the G7 summit in June, its leaders will have an opportunity to advance this agenda; they must take it. If the world is to meet the temperature targets of the Paris accord and slow the pace of warming, every gas responsible for a warmer planet – not just CO2 – must be measured and appropriately managed.
Scott Vaughan is President and CEO of the International Institute for Sustainable Development and a former Canadian Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development. Durwood Zaelke is founder and President of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development.
© Project Syndicate 1995–2018