The Global Methane Assessment: Cuts and Acts

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On the 6th of May 2021, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition and the UN Environment Program released the Global Methane Assessment. This new assessment analyses the benefits and costs of reducing methane emissions and identifies the sectors in which the most progress can be made by 2030.

Methane, a short-lived climate pollutant (SLCP) with an atmospheric lifetime of roughly a decade, is a potent greenhouse gas ten of times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the atmosphere. Its atmospheric concentration has more than doubled since pre-industrial times. Methane is second only to carbon dioxide (CO2) in driving climate change, and more than half of all methane emissions come from human activities in three sectors: fossil fuels (35%), waste (20%) and agriculture (40%). We need to manage methane now to manage the climate crisis. The Assessment highlights five key points.

  1. Human-caused methane emissions are growing, and we must reduce them by 40 to 45% by 2030 to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 °C. This would avoid nearly 0.3 °C of global warming by 2045 and complement all long-term climate change mitigation efforts.
  2. Reducing methane emissions is low cost and one of the most cost-effective strategies to rapidly reduce the rate of warming. Methane is the only greenhouse gas for which ample, cheap, off-the-shelf emission control technologies exist. There are readily available targeted methane measures that can reduce 2030 methane emissions by 30% if fully implemented. Many of these are zero to low-cost solutions.
  3. There are significant health, economic, and development benefits from acting now. The benefits of acting are numerous and benefit a wide range of constituents including children, the elderly, the climate and economically vulnerable, and minority populations. This includes improved air quality that can save hundreds of thousands of lives; improved food security by preventing crop losses; and the creation of jobs through mitigation efforts, while increasing productivity through reduced heat stress. Reducing methane emissions by 45%would prevent 260 000 premature deaths, 775 000 asthma-related hospital visits, 26 million tonnes of crop losses annually, and 73 billion hours of lost labour from extreme heat.
  4. These benefits far outweigh the costs. By implementing a 1.5°C-consistent-methane mitigation strategy, the global monetized benefits would be approximately USD $4,300/tonne of methane reduced. The benefits from avoided premature deaths alone would be approximately USD $450 billion per year by 2030.
  5. We need to make 2021 a ‘methane moment’. Methane mitigation is one of the most significant climate actions the world can take this decade. Meeting the 45% target would be a significant political victory with international and national benefits. Slashing methane emissions is the only lever to slow the pace of global warming in the near term.

Methane emissions affect and therefore concern everyone. We have the solutions, we have the technology – there is no reason not to act now.

Written by Dr Eleni Michalopoulou
Stockholm Environment Institute, Department of Environment and Geography, University of York.
Eleni is a pirate but lately works on all things atmospheric. Find out more:

Grasp the nettle! Yes, but which one?!

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Media coverage of climate change is ramping-up in the UK ahead of the COP26 conference in November, prompting our government to start announcing targets – in this case a pledge to cut GHG emissions by 78% by 2035 compared with 1990 levels.

Of course, the great thing about targets set two or three electoral cycles into the future is that the person(s) who announces them isn’t necessarily the person who has to live with the consequences of their implementation (or non-implementation). They will instead bask in the rosy glow of the announcement, content in the knowledge that they probably won’t need to make any difficult decisions that would risk their ‘glorious’ legacies.

Difficult decisions, however, will need to be made. For anyone with an interest in the natural world (which should be all of us, co-inhabitants on a single shared planet), climate change and the catastrophic degradation of the entire global environment are a cause for simultaneous depression and enragement. As a society we seem to be stuck in the ‘have our cake and eat it’ mode: no need to change our behaviours as we ferry our recycling to the bottle bank in our electric cars.

Is this sustainable? It seems unlikely to me, but that’s an opinion based on an imperfect understanding of the systems in play and the balances that need to be achieved. Targets are great – but there is little evidence that our government is capable of making meaningful change to ensure that they are delivered, let alone help society to transform itself and put it in a sustainable path.

The low-hanging fruits have been picked and consumed long ago, and progress in many areas has stalled over the past decade: whether this is on GHG reductions, recycling rates, air, water and soil quality. It seems highly likely that our patterns of behaviour and (particularly) consumption will therefore need to change for transitions to sustainability to happen. This could require a re-set of our entire economic and social structure.

How relevant are ‘sustainable’ lifestyles to those who rely on foodbanks for their nutrition, or those working zero hours contracts to support their families, or those in badly insulated, inefficient housing? I would argue that we can’t hope to address the climate crisis without also addressing wider socio-economic crises: systemic change is required at all levels.

It’s not a case of either-or; we really need to get a grip ‘on the whole’ thing at once. Electoral suicide for whichever party chooses to do it, but kicking the can down the road is no longer an option.

Written by Dr David Thompkins, Deputy Head of Strategy at CRES