Reducing carbon dioxide is not enough to solve the climate crisis – the world must act quickly on another powerful greenhouse gas, methane, to stop the rise in global temperatures, experts have warned.
Leading climate scientists will give their strongest warning yet – that we are rushing to the brink of climate catastrophe – in a landmark report on Monday. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will release its Sixth Assessment Report, a comprehensive review of global understanding of the climate crisis and how human actions are changing the planet. It will show in detail how close the world is to irreversible change.
One of the key action points for policymakers will likely be a warning that methane is playing an increasingly important role in overheating the planet. Carbon-rich gas, produced from livestock, shale gas wells, and mismanaged conventional oil and gas extraction, heats the world far more efficiently than carbon dioxide – it has a ” warming potential “more than 80 times that of CO2 – but has a shorter lifespan in the atmosphere, persisting for about a decade before degrading to CO2.
Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development and IPCC lead reviewer, said methane reductions were likely the only way to avoid temperature increases of 1.5 ° C above pre-industrial levels, beyond which extreme weather conditions will increase and “tipping points” could be reached. “Reducing methane is the biggest opportunity to slow warming by 2040,” he said. “We have to face this emergency.
Zaelke said policymakers need to take into account the IPCC’s findings on methane ahead of the UN climate talks, Cop26, in Glasgow in November. “We have to see Cop26 as an acknowledgment of this problem, that we have to do something about it.”
Reducing methane could balance the impact of phasing out coal, a key goal of Cop26 as it is the dirtiest fossil fuel and has caused a sharp increase in emissions in recent years. However, the use of coal has a perverse climatic effect: the sulfur particles it produces protect the Earth from a certain warming by deflecting part of the sun.
This means that the immediate effect of reducing coal use could be to increase warming, while protecting the Earth in the medium to long term. Zaelke said the methane reduction could compensate for that. “Deossilization will not cause cooling until about 2050. Sulfur falling from the atmosphere will reveal the warming already present in the system,” he said.
“Climate change is like a marathon – we have to stay the course. Reducing carbon dioxide will not lead to cooling over the next 10 years, and beyond that our ability to tackle climate change will be so severely compromised that we cannot continue. Cutting off the methane gives us time.
Methane levels have risen sharply in recent years, due to shale gas, poorly managed conventional gas, oil drilling and meat production. Last year, methane emissions increased by a record amount, according to the United Nations Environment Program.
Satellite data shows that some of the main sources of methane are poorly managed Russian oil and gas wells. Gas can be extracted from conventional drilling using modern techniques that virtually eliminate “fugitive” or accidental methane emissions. But while countries like Qatar deal with methane, Russia, which is a party to the 2015 Paris climate agreement but has made little effort to cut emissions, has some of the most efficient infrastructure. elusive.
“Today, more than 40% of the EU’s gas is heavy methane from Russia, which is worse than coal for the climate,” said Paul Bledsoe, former White House climate adviser to Clinton , currently at the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington. “The EU should start measuring and then regulating methane emissions from all of its natural gas imports to start a global natural gas cleanup.”
Reducing methane emissions can save money. The UN assessment found that about half of the necessary methane reductions could be achieved with a quick return on investment.
Zaelke urged governments to consider entering into a new deal, alongside the Paris deal, that would cover methane and force countries to sharply cut gas consumption. “I predict that we will have to have a global methane deal,” he said.
Methane is also produced by melting permafrost, and there have been indications that the Siberian heat wave could increase gas emissions. However, it is believed that large-scale emissions from melting permafrost are still a long way off, while methane emissions from agriculture and industry can be tackled today.