Will COP28 be a turning point for reducing methane emissions?

Methane emissions are a major contributor to global warming, but also a potential opportunity for international cooperation. As negotiations ahead of COP28 in the United Arab Emirates highlight the challenges ahead for climate diplomacy, the regulation of methane emissions appears to be one of the few points of agreement. This common ground amongst the various delegations is partially due to a cost/benefit ratio that’s largely in favour of the climate. So, will an agreement on the reduction of methane emissions emerge as a success story of COP28? And what might the solution look like when it comes to reaching a global consensus on the issue?

Methane emissions are a major contributor to global warming, but also a potential opportunity for international cooperation. As negotiations ahead of COP28 in the United Arab Emirates highlight the challenges ahead for climate diplomacy, the regulation of methane emissions appears to be one of the few points of agreement. This common ground amongst the various delegations is partially due to a cost/benefit ratio that’s largely in favour of the climate. So, will an agreement on the reduction of methane emissions emerge as a success story of COP28? And what might the solution look like when it comes to reaching a global consensus on the issue?

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, second only to CO2 in greenhouse gas emissions. Methane (CH4) is responsible for 30% of the rise in the earth’s surface temperature and it has a warming potential 84 times greater than CO2. Unlike carbon dioxide, it disappears much faster from the atmosphere, within 10 to 15 years, compared to around a hundred years for CO2. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), reducing methane emissions by 30% to 40% by 2030 would help decrease global warming by at least 0.12°C by 2050.

This objective has been adopted by many countries and organisations through various international agreements, within the derived legislation of the European Union. The Global Methane Pledge is an initiative that involves 150 countries committed to reducing their emissions by 30%, a target that is also adopted by the European Union’s Fit for 55 package.

Rapidly regulating emissions of this gas is a vital strategic step necessary for both states and international organisations alike. The IEA emphasises that COP28 will be the moment of truth in the fight against CO2 emissions.

One of the advantages of reducing methane emissions is that it’s relatively inexpensive in comparison to other climate actions. According to the IEA, only $75 billion in global investment would be necessary to reduce CH4 emissions by 90%. In comparison, the French government alone would need to invest €60 to €70 billion annually to mitigate the effects of climate change. As well as the comparatively lower cost involved, the measures that can be implemented are simple, and the solutions are widely supported within civil society.

In a report from 2022, the International Methane Emissions Observatory indicates that CH4 emissions are mainly concentrated in three sectors: agriculture, waste and extractive industries. For the gas industry, the IMEO recommends that gas companies stop flaring excess gas and commit to storing it for resale. 

Similarly, artificial intelligence coupled with satellites allows for better identification of leaks in pipelines and gas pipelines, which are responsible for colossal emissions. These new technologies, mastered by French start-up Kayrros, have enabled Turkmenistan, for example, to reduce its methane (CH4) emissions. In the same vein, a NASA mission is now able to identify the main sources of emissions and leaks, in order to implement a "Name and Shame" strategy. 

Another key aspect of COP28 is the circular economy. One way this is possible when it comes to methane gas is to use methane from waste as a source of energy for industry. This involves converting the CH4 from landfills into biogas, electricity or heat for certain industries. This not only limits direct methane emissions, but also prevents the conversion of flared methane into CO2. The sector is booming in France and the United States, and it should expand internationally too. 

Finally, the IMF has also entered the debate, recommending the creation of a methane market with a common market price among different states, based on fiscal policies, to protect the competitiveness of developing countries. Whilst this is a more structural measure, it nonetheless demonstrates the many ways in which governments, international organisations and businesses can implement solutions with an instant and immediate impact on global warming.

COP28 is a critical moment to address the issue of methane emissions, along with other methods to accelerate CO2 capture. If a global commitment to reducing methane emissions is achieved, it would be a very positive step forward for our future planet. However, this will require political will and international cooperation. It remains to be seen how COP28 will fare in the fight against methane emissions. Will the conference give rise to concrete actions on tackling this issue, or will it end up remaining an unrealised goal? The effectiveness of our current climate diplomacy will soon be brought to light.

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