Science Policy Dialogue 2020: The opportunities and challenges to reduce methane emissions by 2030 to achieve the 1.5˚C goal.

The latest Climate and Clean Air Coalition Science Policy Dialogue focused on efforts to reduce methane emissions in the next decade to put the planet on a path to achieve the Paris climate goals.

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A 3-dimensional representation of methane concentrations in the atmosphere (Source: NASA)

Methane continues to be one of the fastest growing short-lived climate pollutants and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The latest Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) Science Policy Dialogue explored ways to reverse this trend and put the world on a pathway to achieving the global target to keep warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Held virtually for the first time, due to travel restrictions brought about by COVID-19, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition’s 2020 Science Policy Dialogue on methane attracted 215 registered online attendees and 235 views on YouTube. The event brought together scientists, policymakers, practitioners, and regulators to discuss the opportunities and barriers to the potential to reduce global methane emissions from three key sectors – oil, gas, and coal; agriculture; and waste – and how methane mitigation can drive ambitious climate action this decade.

The Earth has warmed by about 1 degree Celsius (˚C) since 1880. Methane is responsible for just under half – roughly 0.4˚C – of that warming, making methane the second most important contributor to warming behind carbon dioxide (CO2).

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In the past five years, methane concentrations have increased at a faster rate than during the prior two and a half decades (source: NOAA 2020)

Humans are responsible for approximately two-thirds of global methane emissions. Of these 90% come from three key sectors. Fossil fuels (oil, gas, and coal) are responsible for approximately 35% of anthropogenic (man-made) emissions, agriculture approximately 40%, and waste approximately 20%. In the past five years, methane concentrations have increased at a faster rate than during the prior two and a half decades.

Methane has several important impacts. It is a powerful climate forcer in the short-term and is also an important ingredient in the formation of tropospheric (ground-level) ozone, which has considerable impacts on climate, human health, agriculture, and eco-systems.

A background video on methane produced for the Science Policy Dialogue (see below) noted that ozone causes more than 1 million premature deaths annually from respiratory diseases. Ozone is also toxic to many important species of crops, causing up to 15% in annual yield losses of soy, wheat, rice and maize. Crops are further impacted by the climate change impacts methane induces. These direct impacts from methane and additional indirect impacts from ozone, means methane has a “pound for pound greater impact than the equivalent climate effect of carbon dioxide”.  

Reducing methane can therefore be an effective way to reduce the rate of temperature rise in the near-term and brings significant health and food security benefits.  

Methane and the CCAC's role in catalysing 2030 mitigation ambition

Methane and the CCAC's role in catalysing 2030 mitigation ambition
Video: Members of the CCAC Scientific Advisory Panel explain the significant climate change and health benefits of methane migitation, and what can be achieved by 2030.

Reducing methane from fossil fuels.

Fossil fuels – oil, gas and coal – is one of the most viable and cost-effective sectors to reduce anthropogenic methane.

Drew Shindell, Chair of the CCAC’s Scientific Advisory Panel (SAP) and Professor of Climate Science at Duke University, said that for oil, gas, and coal “there is enormous potential to use technical measures to bring down the vast majority of methane emissions by 2030”. Many of these of these measures are viable now and can be carried out at low or negative net cost.

In 2010, the sector emitted 122 megatons (Mt) of methane, approximately 37% of all anthropogenic methane emissions. Without additional controls this is expected to increase to 142 Mt annually by 2030.

Scientists, experts and policy makers took part in a guided discussion on the opportunities and challenges in reducing methane reduction from the fossil fuel sector.

Graciela Raga, CCAC SAP member, and Senior Scientist, at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, pointed to recent findings from the CCAC’s Oil and Gas Methane Science Studies in the United States Permian Basin and the Gulf of Mexico that showed that offshore platforms were much larger emitters of methane than previously expected. Among these, were two “super-emitters” responsible for 20% of all found emissions. Targeting these super-emitters is one way to quickly reduce methane from the sector.

Euan Nisbet, Professor of Earth Sciences at Royal Holloway University of London, noted that improved technology is making it easier to identify methane sources, especially super emitters. This includes aerial, ground based survey’s and more precise satellite-based instruments

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Methane emissions from shallow water facilities in the Gulf of Mexico are higher than inventoried. Photo: Eric Kort

Tim Gould, Head of Division for Energy Supply Outlooks and Investment at the International Energy Agency, said focusing on upstream oil and gas production was a key area of opportunity. A challenge has been a lack of awareness, lack of data, and a corporate culture that doesn’t investigate the issue. He recommended improved transparency on data, measures, and quantitative targets in the next round of national climate commitments – also known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – supported by well-rounded legislation.

Other speakers noted the need for improved regulations and minimum standards. An important challenge in designing regulations was the vast array of different activities in the oil and gas sector. James Diamond, Manager, Upstream Oil & Gas for Environment and Climate Change Canada, said Canada’s diverse sources of methane in the sector ranged from conventional oil and natural gas to tar sands and heavy oil, all of which have specific regulatory needs. Canada’s national regulations were designed with pieces that apply universally but have impact on a particular sector.

Oil and gas remains the most technically feasible sector to reduce methane emissions substantially. Because many measures are achievable at net zero or negative cost for the industry, it also makes sense economically and from a business perspective.

Reducing methane from agriculture.

Agriculture is the largest source of anthropogenic methane. It is also trickier to control than oil and gas methane due to the biological processes responsible for creating agricultural methane and the differing cultural traditions and values around livestock, farming practices, and diets. The diverse socio-economic disparity between farmers in different parts of the world also plays a part.

Livestock, in particular cattle for beef and dairy and other ruminants, is the largest sources of agricultural methane, producing approximately 22% of all anthropogenic methane through enteric fermentation. Another 10% comes from methane produced from manure and 10% from anaerobic processes in paddy rice cultivation. Approximately 1% comes from other agricultural sources like residue burning and land clearing.

Agriculture sector methane emissions in 2010 were 140 Mt, or approximately 43% of total anthropogenic emissions. Agricultural sector methane emissions are expected to increase to 155 Mt by 2030 without additional controls. To be consistent with the IPCC’s 1.5˚C scenarios, methane from the agricultural sector needs to be reduced by 20% compared to 2010 levels, by 2030.

According to modelling by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) applying the maximum technically feasible scenarios in this sector would reduce methane emissions by 24 Mt (16%), with the largest reductions (12 Mt) coming from measures in paddy rice. This indicates that the technological measures considered by the IIASA GAINS scenario are not enough to achieve a 1.5˚C pathway.

Current ‘supply side’ technical measures to reduce agricultural methane include improved diets, increased animal productivity and better manure management in the livestock sector, and intermittent irrigation, controlled fertilizer release, and planting different varieties in rice cultivation.

However, substantially more mitigation could be possible in the sector through cultural measures like changes in dietary practices and behavioural change. These ‘demand side’ mitigation measures include shifting human diets toward less animal product-based diets and greenhouse gas taxes on food. Less meat consumption could have health benefits in countries that already consume a lot of meat but potentially adverse health effects in protein poor countries.

These differences highlight the very fragmented nature of this sector. Improving methane mitigation requires a detailed understanding of the drivers and potential for targeted interventions for every sub-sector and region.

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Afar tribe herder with his cows, Afar region, Ethiopia. Reducing methane from small herders is a challenge. Photo: Eric Lafforgue

Lena Höglund-Isaksson, Senior Research Scholar at IIASA said the IASSA GAINS analysis looked at different farming types to see where the biggest potential for reductions are. They found that one-third of livestock emissions comes from big industrial scale farms, one-third from small-scale farmers and herders in Africa and South East Asia who focus on cattle and dairy, and one-third from other breeders. The biggest potential using technical measures was in the industrial scale farms, which could reduce emissions by 30%. Small-scale farmers provided very limited technical potential.  For the last third potential measures include intensification – or increased production intensity per animal or extensification – introducing other environmental targets like ammonia emissions, biodiversity loss, reduced deforestation, etc. which wold mean accepting higher prices for animal protein.  

Henning Steinfeld, Chief of Livestock Information in the Sector Analysis and Policy Branch of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), said the fragmented nature of the agriculture sector must be recognized. The FAO has focused mainly on increasing productivity and intensity, as this is the main entry point to reduce methane in the livestock sector. Another good area to reduce methane is by covering manure lagoons and funnelling the methane they produce for other purposes, like energy production. He also noted that there are other benefits from livestock that aren’t captured in simple input output calculations. He noted that in places like Africa livestock is kept as a means of asset and capital accumulation, leading to lower productivity. Alternatives to using cattle for capital must be found to reduce emissions in these areas.

Jeroen Dijkman, Deputy Director, New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre, talked about their work with the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases (GRA) and the CCAC, which aims to build capacity in low- and middle-income countries to build capacity to include livestock targets in their NDCs and identifying different mitigation scenarios. A challenge is that there isn’t capacity in the sector which makes it very difficult to start to address these issues.

Dong Hongmin from the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Scientists said that while there were many programs in China to improve agriculture and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the implementation of these technologies tends to be economically invisible. This provides no incentive for local governments and farmers to implement behavioural changes. Also, many farmers are small holders, so solutions need to be cheap and not create additional labour demands. An additional barrier to action is that many countries haven’t included agricultural emissions in their NDCs and don’t have quantified emissions reduction targets making it hard to set and achieve targets.

While there are many challenges the CCAC sees much potential for increased methane reductions by 2030 through the implementation of measures compatible with alleviating both hunger and poverty. Ensuring NDC targets for agriculture can help foster sustainable farming practices and ensure food security. They can also help build resilience for small scale and vulnerable farmers and help achieve climate and sustainable development goals.

Reducing methane from waste.

Methane emissions from the waste sector in 2010 accounted 57 Mt of methane, or approximately 18% of total anthropogenic emissions. This is expected to increase to 78 Mt by 2030 under a business as usual scenario.  To achieve the IPCC’s 1.5˚C scenario, methane emissions from this sector need to decrease by 65% by 2030 compared to 2010 levels.

There is high potential to achieve the target in this sector. The maximum technical feasible mitigation potential could achieve a 64% reduction in methane by 2030. The largest reductions coming from the municipal solid waste (31 Mt) and wastewater (16 Mt) sectors.

Even though waste is not the largest contributor to anthropogenic methane it has many options for reducing emissions now. If countries do everything they can in the waste sector, they can achieve a lot. For zero or net negative cost there is a lot of mitigation potential.

Chile and Canada presented a bilateral project to improve capacity in the waste sector. Guillermo Gonzales, Head of the Circular Economy Office, Ministry of Environment, Chile, said waste represented 5% of Chile’s emissions, and that while not large Chile will this year put in place a national organic waste strategy in its circular economy roadmap.

Currently Chile landfills most of the waste it produces but will move to the European Union target of only 10% of its waste going to landfill. Chile currently produces 4 million tons of waste a year with a valorisation (increasing the value of waste by turning into products of much greater value) rate of 1%. The country wants to increase this to 66% valorisation by 2040.

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Improved waste management, like diverting organic waste, can help reduce methane emissions from the sector.

Jan Janssen, Senior Expert at adelphi, Germany, said the greatest potential for methane mitigation is in technologies that aren’t complex. This includes deviating and treating organic waste away from dumpsites, which can produce energy and compost. Or by capturing and using or destroying landfill gas. Producing electricity from this captured gas is ideal but is dependent on a country’s electricity infrastructure. The CCAC could play a role by helping form the political legislative framework to do this and put in place national and international climate finance incentives.

Lena Höglund-Isaksson, Senior Research Scholar at IIASA, said more work on the technical potential to reduce food loss waste is needed. Preventing food waste is both behavioural and technical. There is a need to increase access to electricity and cooling in warmer countries where a lot of food is wasted due to poor storage.

Another important area to focus on is empowering informal waste sector workers. They need incentives to increase collection rates beyond 20-25% by providing education, making the sector more formal, increasing salaries and providing direct access to world markets.

Sandra Mazo-Nix, Coordinator of the CCAC’s Waste Initiative said it is important for the CCAC to mobilise action, to ensure national governments help cities provide waste management services. It is important for the CCAC to help countries see waste as not just a sanitation problem, but also as a climate problem and a way to improve soil and water quality.

The CCAC’s role in methane mitigation

Under a 1.5˚C scenario, methane concentrations need to fall dramatically. Waste and oil and gas offer the best technical potential for immediate action, while agriculture remains an important focus for increasing future mitigation opportunities.

Drew Shindell, presented a new Global Methane Assessment Online Tool which allows users to evaluate the costs and benefits of methane mitigation measures. It is currently in Beta testing and will be released later in 2020. 

Brendan Devlin, Adviser for the Directorate General Energy, European Commission said the CCAC has a unique marriage of science and action, which is very useful for delivering short-run climate gains. The European Commission wants to work to increase the political visibility of the CCAC with ministers and prime ministers to show the added value the brings to short-run climate activities. This includes cooperation on a global methane observatory to be launched by September 2020.

The CCAC’s Scientific Advisory Panel is finalizing a Global Methane Assessment that is due out later this year.

CCAC Science Policy Dialogue

CCAC Science Policy Dialogue
CCAC Science Policy Dialogue Full Recording

See the full recording of the 2020 Science Policy Dialogue on Methane above. The Introduction 'Scientific and Technical Foundations of the Coalition' goes from 00:00 to 19:55; Session 1 - Oil, Gas and Coal Sector goes from 19:55 to 1:20:14; Session 2 – Agriculture Sector goes from 1:20:14 to 2:10:45; Session 3 – Waste Sector goes from 2:10:45 to 3:01:40; An introduction to the new Global Methane Assessment Online Tool goes from 3:01:40 to 3:16:30; the final session, Session 4 – Bringing it all together, goes from 3:16:30 to 4:07:10

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