Will methane come to the fore at COP26?

An insight on the IPCC sixth assessment report

The latest IPCC report is clear – rapid methane reductions are essential to keep global warming in check. Despite this call to action, a global strategy to tackle methane is missing. Whether such a strategy will eventually emerge depends on how fast the national policies and business strategies will align themselves with the findings of climate scientists.

The IPCC sixth assessment report

The publication of the latest IPCC report came amidst heat waves in the United States and Canada, devastating floods in Germany and China and wildfires in Greece and Siberia. The report constitutes the first part of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sixth assessment report (AR6). It summarises the “physical science basis” for climate change, embracing the findings from more than 14,000 peer-reviewed studies.

The developments since the publication of the latest report in 2013-14 are profoundly concerning. The publication strengthens the links between human-caused warming and increasingly severe extreme weather; it is now “an established fact”. Global warming is expected to reach 1.5C “in the early 2030s” in almost all analysed scenarios. The climate system will continue to warm unless the GHG emissions will reach net zero, which requires “strong reductions” not only in carbon dioxide, but also in other greenhouse gases, such as methane.

For the first time, IPCC gives special consideration to short-lived Climate Pollutants (SLCPs), including methane. Methane is the second most important GHG responsible for a quarter of global warming we experience today. Methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the short term.

The report touches upon the carbon cycle feedback related to the release of methane from thawing permafrost and methane hydrates – also known as “clathrates”. On the former, the report suggests that although there is high confidence that warming will lead to methane release from the thawing of permafrost, there is low confidence in the timing and size of emissions. On the latter, the report highlights that significant emissions from the “permafrost-embedded subsea clathrates are very unlikely”.

Thanks to the publication of the IPCC AR6, methane emissions are no longer an issue discussed by a narrow group of insiders but a public concern. As a result, more and more politicians turn their attention to methane emissions.

Methane politics and policies 

One of the key findings of the IEA’s Regulatory Roadmap is that political leadership is essential to the development and implementation of methane policies and regulations.

The 2016 North American Leaders’ Summit and what happened afterwards is a good example. During the summit, Canada, Mexico, and the US endorsed a joint target to reduce methane emissions in the oil and gas sectors by 40% to 45% by 2025. To this objective, the three countries committed to develop and implement federal regulations. The US published the rules in 2016, Canada and Mexico two years later.  Following the reversal of methane rules under the Trump Administration, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected to propose new regulations “to establish emission guidelines for methane emissions from existing operations in the oil and gas sector” later this year.

Now, the EU is leading the efforts to reduce methane emissions. After the publication of the 2020 EU strategy to reduce methane emissions, the Commission is currently working on a legislative proposal to be published in October or November. The EU rules on methane will include provisions on Measurement, Reporting and Verification (MRV) based on the OGMP 2.0 framework, Leak Detection and Repair requirements and potentially, ban on routine venting and flaring.

Once the new legislation is adopted, it will be binding in the 27 EU Member States. The EU Commission is also considering introducing rules, which may impact the natural gas imported into the EU. Those provisions will have a significant effect extending outside of the EU, as the EU gas imports account for roughly 36% of the global natural gas trade.

You can learn about the upcoming EU regulations during the FSR-EDF joint webinar on 24 September.

In Africa, Nigeria is also stepping up the game. Earlier this year, this country included a  target to reduce methane emissions by 60% by 2031 into its updated Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) as one of the measures to achieve a conditional 47% GHG emissions reduction below Business as Usual.

Yet, what is still missing at the political level is a global pledge to tackle methane emissions. The political momentum for methane is building up. Earlier this year, G20 recognised methane reduction as one of the “quickest, most feasible and most cost-effective ways” to combat climate change. And there a few important meetings preceding the COP26 in Glasgow, including the UN General Assembly in September and the G20 Leader summit in October.

What else does it take to reduce methane?

The Global Methane Assessment concludes that the biggest reductions in methane emissions necessary to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 °C can be achieved in the oil and gas sector. It is the world’s largest industrial source of methane, with significant cost-effective abatement opportunities. The success of many methane policies and regulations depends if this sector, notable for its conservatism and distrust of any government intervention, will demonstrate progress in tackling methane emissions.

There are some positive signs in this respect. Almost 70 companies from different parts of the world and value chain have already joined the voluntary Oil and Gas Methane Partnership 2.0, setting up a new standard for corporate methane emissions reporting. A first report summarising corporate methane data is due by the end of this year. It will be a litmus test for the industry leaders.

The companies get more interested in accounting and certification of methane emissions from their operations because of commercial reasons. A global not-for-profit initiative MiQ will issue first certificates assessing the performance of the gas producers on their upstream methane emissions this fall.

MiQ Senior Advisor Georges Tijbosch, interviewed by S&P Global Platts, said that “the certification of gas supply based on its methane emissions performance was already becoming part of contractual negotiations between sellers and buyers, and could become a key component in global gas trade in the future”.

MiQ’s clients include the US-based EQT Corp., Chesapeake Energy Corp., and Northeast Natural Energy (NNE).

Yet, there is much more than can be done to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector – the elimination of routine flaring, the extension of the scope of methane targets by including non-operated Joint Ventures and the National Oil and Gas Companies.

It took decades to get the decarbonisation policies and business strategies aligned with climate science on carbon dioxide. We can’t afford to repeat the same mistakes with methane simply because the window of opportunity is much smaller this time.

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