A rapid, full-scale effort to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, large-scale agriculture and other human sources could slow the worldwide rate of warming by as much as 30%, a newly published paper in the journal Environmental Research Letters showed on April 27.
The results highlight the critical role of methane in any climate strategy, even as we decarbonize our energy systems. By reducing emissions of methane — which has more than 80 times the warming power of CO2 for the first 20 years it’s in the atmosphere — we can hit the brakes on the increasingly rapid warming responsible for stronger storms, hotter fire seasons and rapidly melting Arctic sea ice, the Environmental Defense Fund said in a press release.
“Acting now and moving quickly to cut methane emissions is essential. Even modest delay would mean missing out on significant climate benefits. That’s an opportunity we won’t get back,” said the lead author of the paper, Ilissa B. Ocko, senior climate scientist at Environmental Defense Fund. “To realize these climate benefits, decision makers need to address methane directly and not assume the problem will resolve itself as a result of policies to reduce CO2,” she added.
Earlier this month, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that current methane levels in the atmosphere are the highest on record. The paper estimates that fully deploying known solutions in the six sectors responsible for the lion’s share of emissions could cut the amount of methane from human sources in half by 2030, avoiding a 0.25 degree Celsius of additional global-mean warming by midcentury, and more than 0.5 C by 2100.
According to the Environmental Defense Fund, a half-degree C would make a critical difference in a world trying to keep warming below 2 C. It could mean 10 million fewer people at risk from sea level rise; half the number of people stressed for water and half the number of plant and animal species losing crucial habitat.
The new paper encompasses a broad suite of solutions which exist today that, if implemented over the next decade, could cut projected 2030 methane emissions in half, with half of that reduction achievable at no net cost. Around 80% of no-cost actions come from the oil and gas industry. In each of the scenarios analyzed; nearly a third of that would come from top oil and gas producers meeting their agreed upon targets to reduce upstream leakage.
Compared with the fast-action scenario, a go-slow approach that starts now but stretches out full adoption from 2030 to 2050 would mean a 5% increase in the average worldwide warming rate and an extra 0.1 C by 2050. Likewise, a delayed-start strategy that squeezes reductions into a 10-year window starting in 2040 — perhaps in a rush to achieve midcentury net-zero emission goals — would result in a 20% faster warming rate and an additional 0.2 C by 2050 compared with a fast-action plan that starts now, the Environmental Defense Fund said, warning that without action, methane emissions from human activities are expected to keep rising for the rest of the century, increasing 70% or more by 2100, for a worldwide total exceeding 600 million metric tonnes per year. Three-quarters of those emissions are projected to come from livestock, oil and gas, and landfills, each in roughly equal measure.