This summer has been the hottest in Earth’s modern history. In the United States, Arizona, Texas, and other areas in the South and Southwest have experienced relentless dangerously elevated temperatures. Meanwhile, hurricane season has begun with a strong start, as the extraordinarily warm ocean water of the Caribbean and Atlantic intensifies tropical weather systems. Dangerous heat, extreme weather, rapid melting of ice sheets, thawing of permafrost, and other effects of climate change are a global phenomenon.
The climate crisis is here, yet the United States and the international community are unequipped to deal with its mounting challenges. Without swift action, many cities and regions around the world will become practically uninhabitable. The humanitarian toll is enormous and growing rapidly, and as Sherri Goodman has pointed out, climate change is a national security “threat multiplier.”
What can be done to mitigate intensified climate disasters? To achieve discernible results over the next 10-20 years, the international community must unite in a joint effort to reduce fugitive emissions of methane around the world.
The Role of Methane
Carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas contributing the most to climate change, is the focus of most governmental policies and public attention. Reducing CO2 emissions is essential to preventing the worst effects of climate change over the next 20 to 50 years – effects that could doom future generations to dramatically harsher and poorer lives. Carbon dioxide has a half-life in the atmosphere of roughly 120 years, so it will take decades before there is a significant reduction in warming attributable to declines in CO2 levels.
Methane is the second most important greenhouse gas, and has contributed to approximately 30% of warming since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Luckily, methane has a half-life in the atmosphere of only about 10 years, so significant reductions in its emissions will much more quickly translate into significant reductions in additional global warming. Achieving significant reductions in methane emissions quickly will require a new international model of focused, collective action to identify the largest sources of addressable methane emissions, and to address those sources — no matter where they are.
Historically, carbon dioxide emissions have been strongly associated with economic activity. CO2 is a necessary byproduct of the combustion of fossil fuels, which have promoted economic growth and prosperity. Understandably, countries that have not benefited as early and as fully as the United States and other developed countries from the revolution in human progress made possible by fossil fuels understandably are not willing to adopt deep and rapid reductions in fossil fuel use. Indeed, even in countries like the United States, the polity is deeply divided over reductions in fossil fuel use, even though there are increasingly attractive and indeed economically advantageous alternatives, such as wind, solar, and (possibly) nuclear.
But methane emissions are different; to a great extent, they are not a necessary byproduct of economically important activities. It is entirely possible to reduce methane emissions without disrupting the productive activities that now result in methane emissions. Although some methane emissions are naturally produced, close to two-thirds of methane emissions stem from human activities from which methane emissions can be greatly diminished without seriously affecting the productive activity itself — including from millions of abandoned oil and gas wells. Stopping or capturing emissions from inactive wells is fully consistent with the underlying productive activity, which in this context has already ended.
Other human-created sources of methane emission likewise afford opportunities for reductions. Landfills can be engineered to collect methane, which can be used for energy production. Livestock farming is also a significant source of methane emissions, but manure can be better handled to reduce emissions, and there has been progress in finding dietary supplements that reduce emissions. New research trials also aim to identify means to minimize the emissions of methane during rice farming. But the most promising area for rapid progress on methane emissions reductions is from active and abandoned oil and natural gas production wells. Estimates of the number of abandoned wells with no responsible owner vary widely, but there could be millions in the United States alone. Controlling emissions from active oil and natural gas wells is fully consistent with the continued operation of such wells, and any methane captured from such wells, if put to productive use, would increase the productivity of the well. There are also significant emissions from natural gas pipelines and local distribution networks; reducing those fugitive emissions would make more natural gas available to sell and available for productive use.
Need for International Action
Developed countries, like the United States, have the wherewithal to aggressively pursue methane reduction measures. Indeed, the Environmental Protection Agency is in the midst of proposing regulatory controls to significantly expand the effect of rules adopted during the Obama administration, which aimed to limit the release of fugitive emissions of methane from the oil and gas industry. But climate change is a global crisis, and the redressable sources of methane emissions are by no means limited to developed countries. The Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty signed in 1997, obligated each country to determine its total greenhouse gas emissions and more developed states to reduce their emissions over a defined commitment period of time (Reductions are decided on by each party to the treaty as a “Nationally Determined Contribution”). But the model embedded in the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement of individual country obligations based on “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” is not adequate to the challenges and opportunities presented by methane.
The Kyoto model should be augmented by an additional framework that recognizes the challenges posed by the current state of global warming, and the opportunity to affect the rate of warming by significantly reducing methane emissions throughout the world. While carbon dioxide emissions are strongly correlated with economic development, that is not necessarily the case with methane emissions. Focusing on methane emissions only from developed countries might well be overlooking far better and more cost-effective opportunities to reduce overall emissions of methane elsewhere.
The Global Methane Pledge, launched during the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November 2021, is a big step in the right direction. It calls for a 30% reduction in anthropogenic methane emissions from 2005 levels by 2030, to be achieved by domestic actions of the signatory countries. From an initial group of 100 countries, the number of signatory countries pledging to abide by this commitment has grown to 150.
In addition to an aggregate of distinctly national efforts at emissions reductions, there should be a truly international approach to methane emission reduction that moves beyond the cooperative — yet still separate — efforts for which the Methane Pledge calls. The first step should be to create and publicize a global inventory of the largest sources of fugitive emissions, including areas with a high density of small individual sources that release significant quantities of methane, and to spot super-emitting events in real time. That global inventory must be kept current, and its scope should be expanded over time.
Important work is already underway to inventory methane emissions through satellite monitoring. An interdisciplinary team at Harvard University has been using data collected from multiple satellites to correct country emission inventories, and to calculate emissions from specific sources. Another such effort is MethaneSat, which is planning to launch a satellite optimized for methane emission detection and monitoring in early 2024. MethaneSat is a wholly owned subsidiary of the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund. These joint efforts could well succeed in establishing the inventory crucial to meaningfully address the challenge and opportunity presented by worldwide methane emissions. By quantifying actual methane emissions and pinpointing their origin, a comprehensive global inventory could well give real impetus to the necessary next step — creating an international regime for achieving meaningful remediation on a global basis. A comprehensive real-time global inventory derived from satellite data would overcome the shortcomings of often inadequate national inventories and could harness the power of “naming and shaming.”
The next step must be the development of an adequately funded international remedial response mechanism, to direct the remediation of emissions from the largest sources regardless of location. To the extent that a source is in a developed country, that state should manage and finance the remediation, with efforts to impose the costs on the facility owner or other responsible entities through national law. But to the extent that the source is in a less developed country, remediation should be carried out through a coordinated international, national, and private effort, and managed in coordination with an internationally organized expert group. With this approach, we might hope to see some improvement in an already overheated climate within our own lifetimes and certainly within the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren, while working towards the CO2 reductions that will help preserve the wellbeing of our world for generations yet to come.
There will be opposition to the creation of such a mechanism. Developed countries responsible for funding will certainly want something in return — beyond the benefits of reducing the global burden of methane emissions. This is true even if a cost-benefit analysis could show that the economic benefits in that country (for example, the United States) of reducing a ton of methane emissions in a developing country (for example, Sierra Leone) were greater than that developed country’s share of the costs. At this time, there is not enough information about costs to even speculate on what a cost-benefit analysis would reveal, particularly if it looked only at the benefits to the developed nation and ignored the benefits throughout the rest of the world. Providing the developed nation with a share of the “credit” for greenhouse gas emissions reductions achieved by the mechanism in a less developed country would make it easier for the former to achieve its agreed-to reduction, and should incentivize joining the mechanism.
For developing countries, there will be resistance to forfeiting total control over activities within their own borders. But as pointed out above, methane emissions are very different from CO2 emissions in their relationship to productive economic activity. CO2 emissions are a necessary concomitant to fossil fuel combustion to generate useful energy, whereas most methane emissions stem from leaks of a useful and valuable resource that, if prevented, would make more of the valuable resource available for productive uses. If the international mechanism is implemented with sensitivity to the interests of developing countries, there should be substantial benefits to developing countries, over and above the positive climate impacts.
Understanding the importance of forestalling even more extreme global warming impacts than we have already seen, acknowledging the need to address methane emissions, and learning where substantial emissions are occurring and under what circumstances should lead to an invigorated search for climate solutions. Thinking outside the Kyoto box is a critical step forward to meaningfully address the crisis that is already here.