Where do methane emissions come from? Why reductions are so important

It is an invisible, odorless gas that, like carbon dioxide, captures solar energy when it is radiated back towards space from the earth’s surface. Unlike carbon dioxide, which can contribute to warming for centuries or longer, the effect of methane, whose chemical name is CH4, is felt primarily in the first 20 years after its release. During this period, its strength can be more than 80 times that of CO2.

A methane powered glass furnace on Murano Island, Venice.

A methane powered glass furnace on Murano Island, Venice. Credit:AP

Where do methane emissions come from?

Human activity accounts for about 60 percent of global methane emissions annually, of which about 35 percent can be attributed to the fossil fuel industry. Methane is the primary component of gas, and leaks can occur anywhere along the gas supply chain, from the wellhead to the homes and businesses where the fuel is burned. But the gas can also be released by oil and coal production.

Agriculture - and specifically cattle and sheep herds - are significant contributors to methane emissions.

Agriculture – and specifically cattle and sheep herds – are significant contributors to methane emissions. Credit:AP

Landfills, burping cows, rice fields and manure are also major sources for which humans are responsible. (Cows are not man-made, but the extent of their herds is.) Naturally occurring methane seeps from cracks in the earth’s surface, mud volcanoes and wetlands.

Why focus on fossil fuels?

Leaks from energy infrastructure are the easiest and cheapest sources of methane to identify and correct. There is also an economic incentive: Manufacturers can compensate for the cost of repairs by selling the extra gas they capture. There are also efforts to create a gas standard that will certify emissions associated with production and transportation.

As much as 80 percent of the measures to curb methane from oil and gas operations and up to 98 percent from the coal sector can be introduced at no cost or with savings, according to the UN Global Methane Assessment for 2021.

Officials also hope to cut back on the venting (release) of gas, which often happens when there is no available pipeline capacity or when manufacturers are only interested in capturing the oil from a well. Some of that gas is burned (burned) to convert the methane to carbon dioxide, but environmentalists and some investors have pushed for limits on burning because not all of the methane is burned in the process. Instead, excess gas could be injected back into the ground.

Methane also escapes from gas pipelines, such as the Trans-Alaska pipeline, pictured here.

Methane also escapes from gas pipelines, such as the Trans-Alaska pipeline, pictured here. Credit:AP

How are leaks found?

For decades, manufacturers and regulators relied on raw techniques such as throwing a tarp over a pipe to see if it was bubbling, or sending workers out to inspect equipment. Leak detection is entering the digital age, where satellites are used to spot the largest sources of methane, while drones, aircraft and ground-based monitors find smaller emission points.

What are governments doing?

President Joe Biden, speaking at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, announced a multi-pronged effort by the US government. For example, the Danish Environmental Protection Agency issued a long-awaited proposal to tighten the requirements for closing leaks in oil and gas wells. The Ministry of Agriculture announces a program that encourages farmers to exploit and sell methane. Pipeline regulators will expand their monitoring of gas pipelines.

What are others doing?

The multinational effort led by the US and the EU involves promises that are not binding on the nations that sign it: they are not obliged to reduce their own methane emissions by a certain amount, simply to “commit to a collective goal”. to reduce global methane emissions by at least 30 percent from 2020 levels by 2030 ″ and pursue the best available approaches to quantify the problem.

That approach lowered the bar for 105 nations – including bovine Brazil – to sign. Elsewhere, China’s latest five – year plan was the first to mention stricter controls on methane. The International Methane Emissions Observatory, a collaboration between the UN and the EU, plans to create a public database of verified methane emissions to better understand emission patterns, including using observations from space. Several satellites, including from the Environmental Defense Fund and a consortium, including Carbon Mapper, the State of California and Planet Labs, are scheduled to be launched over the next few years.


What effect can this have?

Reducing methane emissions can be as close as we get to a short-term climate jailbreak, even if it’s not quite a “Get Out of Jail Free” card.

Strong, rapid and sustained reductions in methane emissions could also help counteract the warming effect that would occur if the world seriously reduced fossil fuel use and consequent air pollution, at least in the short term, according to the latest assessment by the UN Intergovernmental Government. Panel on Climate Change.

This is because burning fossil fuels also releases fine particles known as aerosols that reflect solar radiation away from the planet, causing a cooling effect. Methane emissions generated from human activity could be reduced by 45 percent by 2030 with readily available technology, a step that could avoid nearly 0.3 degrees Celsius of warming in the 2040s, according to the UN Global Methane Assessment.

What are the obstacles?

Methane emissions from livestock and agriculture pose more challenging problems that require changes in how farmers grow crops and feed livestock – not to mention behavioral adaptations by consumers who are happy with their burgers. Mass adoption of plant-based alternatives and laboratory-grown meat could help.

In the oil and gas sector, laws and enforcement policies to limit methane emissions vary widely between major producers such as the US, Russia and Saudi Arabia, and the recovery in oil prices in 2021 may revive drilling from the producers most willing to save. equipment, even if it pays for itself in the long run.

© 2021 Bloomberg, with staff reporters

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