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The European Commission last October adopted an ambitious strategy, which positions the European Union (EU) as a leader in global efforts to reduce methane emissions from all relevant sectors. Methane is the most significant contributor to climate change after carbon dioxide and a driver of dangerous air pollution. Actions targeting methane are essential to achieve global climate targets and improve health.
The new EU strategy initially focuses on more accurate measurement and reporting through: legislation that makes measurement, reporting and verification compulsory for all energy-related methane emissions; improved methane emission measurement and reporting by companies; using satellites to detect super-emitters; and through the creation of an International Methane Emissions Observatory (IMEO).
The strategy also plans to deliver more effective methane mitigation measures across key emitting sectors through activities like creating a market for biogas and reducing emissions in agriculture; improving leak detection and repair, and future legislation on flaring and venting in the oil and gas sector; and by reviewing landfill, urban wastewater treatment, and sewage sludge directives.
The CCAC led the way on methane reductions, particularly in the oil and gas sector, for years. The Coalition’s Oil & Gas Methane Partnership was launched at the UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit in New York in September 2014 and today has 62 partner companies that are working to responsibly manage methane emissions, better measure and report methane emissions figures, to achieve methane reduction targets.
The European Commission and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) are now building on this work by establishing the International Methane Emissions Observatory to collect emissions data and increase the volume and accuracy of the data.
We spoke with Brendan Devlin of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Energy about the project.
The EU is working to become the first climate neutral region by 2050 and to hit ambitious climate targets in 2030. Why are methane emissions an important part of achieving these goals?
Brendan Devlin: Europe has very stringent climate objectives and we are trying to make sure they’re endorsed by other countries around the world. Historically, states have looked mainly at carbon dioxide to reduce global emissions but it's necessary to also look at short-lived climate pollutants — of which methane is the most potent. This can help us achieve the swiftest gains in the shortest time.
If we were to reduce all anthropogenic methane emissions by the technically feasible minimum by 2030, we would shave off something like 0.18 degrees Celsius of global warming by 2050. That may not sound like a great deal, but it's about one third to one quarter of everything that's necessary to be done by 2050.
Not only would we be doing that, we’d also be kickstarting a re-evaluation of the hydrocarbon supply chain into the European Union and developed economies around the world. This could start a move away from hydrocarbon exploitation as a development path to a more sustainable path. This will benefit producers in the long term as there is likely to be much less hydrocarbon demand internationally by around 2050.
What are the primary methane reduction actions in the Commission’s strategy? How were they selected?
Within the three sectors where there are major anthropogenic methane emissions— waste, energy, and agriculture— oil, gas, and coal have the quickest and most cost-effective methane emissions reductions strategies. We’re also highlighting actions in the oil, gas and coal sector first because those don’t require lifestyle changes until 2030, whereas agriculture or waste require significant lifestyle changes.
The European Union is addressing the issue of waste in other ways through a circular economy initiative. For agriculture, we have our Farm to Fork strategy. These are not related directly to methane emissions but are about global responsibility on a whole range of different issues: the circular economy initiative also tackles plastic pollution in the oceans, and the Farm to Fork strategy also deals with enhanced animal welfare and productivity. All these things point in the same direction: reducing methane in all sectors between now and 2030.
The Commission plans to improve measurement and reporting of methane emissions. How will it do so, what is currently missing, and why is this an important goal?
At the moment, we have a global methane budget where we know exactly how much methane there is in the atmosphere, but we don't exactly know where it comes from. We don't know the division between naturally occurring methane (biogenic) and human-induced methane (anthropogenic).
Within the anthropogenic part, we don't know what comes from waste, we don't know what comes from oil, gas, and coal, and we don't know what comes from agriculture.
With better measurement, reporting, and verification we would be able to make choices about who we buy our fossil gas from in the future.Brendan Devlin
If you go deeper into the oil, gas, and coal sector, we don't know which producers are releasing a lot of methane and which are releasing very little. We do know jurisdictions where the venting of fossil gas directly into the atmosphere is allowed and we know other jurisdictions where flaring is encouraged. How efficient that flaring is, determines how much methane is released directly into the atmosphere.
With better measurement, reporting, and verification we would be able to make choices about who we buy our fossil gas from in the future, which companies and which countries. If you look in the context of a hyper competitive market like the United States, there are differences that can be seen and measured using satellites and we would like to be able to develop that into something that can be of commercial value to the best performing companies.
I think it’s very important that we measure it properly, that there is an instrument for measuring which is widely supported and is impeccable in its scientific credentials. That is why we set up the International Methane Emissions Observatory (IMEO) with UNEP, and will continue to work with the CCAC and the International Energy Agency. The IMEO will be a very important institution for the future. We’re looking for wide support for that, particularly scientific support.
The Commission will be partnering with industry to achieve methane emissions reductions. Will productivity and profitability take a hit as a result? Or is it possible for these measures to enhance industry goals?
First off, when it comes to protecting the planet profitability is not an issue. But in the oil and gas sector, most detailed emissions reductions are cost positive which means that they don’t have any cost. They do require a reallocation of capital within companies to move things from highly profitable to less profitable, but they are in themselves not unprofitable. In the oil, gas, and coal sector, a lot of can be done at very low cost or even at a profit.
The remaining parts that are unprofitable shouldn't be happening in the first place. And it is primarily for the oil, gas, and coal companies to solve these issues. The countries which import oil, gas, and coal have a responsibility and cannot close their eyes to the things that are happening beyond their borders and that occur because of their lifestyle.
The EU is not an oil and gas producer. How will your strategy influence methane reduction in producing countries and across global distribution networks?
The European Union is the world's largest importer of fossil gas, it's probably the largest importer of oil, and it’s one of the largest importers of coal. There are a handful of importers that account for about 80 to 90 per cent of global gas consumption, so organizing the buyers to have higher production standards should be relatively easy.
The question we must pose is can those consumers of gas impose higher standards on the producers? I think they certainly can because producers are extraordinarily varied with some having extremely low methane emissions and others having extremely high ones.
We need to make it clear that consumers have choices and that these choices have global climate impacts. Importers should purchase gas from the cleanest suppliers. That is already the basis for domestic energy fuel standards in North America and Western Europe and we feel that this sort of approach could be applied in future to the international trade in gas, oil, and potentially coal.
The strategy will create opportunities for rural areas to produce biogas from waste. What is the potential of biogas? Where might this happen and who will benefit from these initiatives?
With biogas we have to be careful not to create a perverse incentive to produce more waste— we don’t want people to have a greater number of animals and therefore greater amounts of methane production. We also shouldn’t create an incentive to further concentrate and industrialize the farm sector to create energy. Animals are sentient beings, and it shouldn't be that they are eternally kept inside not only to collect their milk and meat but also their gas.
But for the animals that do exist there is a great deal to be said for capturing the methane if it can be used and managed locally. We have examples of places that are already doing that, including islands in Sweden that are using biomethane to power buses and local services.
It should also be said that not all animals are the same. In the context of subsistence farming in developing countries, for example, where one or two animals may be used by a family as their protein source we should be more lenient than in, say, the North American context where there are feedlots with tens of thousands of cattle.
How can the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) help achieve these goals? What role do you see the CCAC playing?
One unique selling point of the CCAC is its Scientific Advisory Panel, which gives extremely good advice on the science that is a key point of reference for us in the development of our policies. The CCAC-UNEP Global Methane Assessment is a guiding document. If the CCAC can produce a 10-year plan to catalyse methane emissions reductions to achieve that 0.2°C goal, that would be a significant triumph for the CCAC. We must commit to a bold set of actions and reforms that can deliver these methane reductions and I'm hoping that the CCAC will have the political support from new administrations around the world in order to have a plan by the end of 2021.
There is more and more evidence that it’s beneficial to treat climate change and air pollution as linked crises. What makes this approach an attractive strategy for the EU to reach its climate goals?
There’s an important interaction between methane emissions, pollution, development, and a just energy transition. For example, if you look at Arctic communities in the United States, Canada, Russia, and the member states of the European Union, there’s been very little done for their environmental and energy needs. A lot of these communities use diesel engines for electricity production which have an extraordinary impact on air pollution. This means that communities deal with the health impacts and the development impacts of having extremely polluted air.
If we could improve access to cleaner energy for these communities, we would also improve their overall development. We'd be contributing to justice for Arctic communities as well as protecting the climate and the Arctic from the effects of the short-lived climate pollutants like black carbon and methane.
It’s the combination of clean air issues, development issues, and work that will benefit the global atmosphere that attracts us to the Climate and Clean Air Coalition.
How is Europe working with countries outside of its borders to achieve methane emissions reductions? Why does it matter so much for this work to be of a global nature?
The European Union doesn't produce very much oil, gas, and coal. It imports it all. Our global footprint of oil, gas, and methane emissions is probably eight to 10 times what we produce inside our own territory. So if we calculate all the emissions associated with our consumption we are extremely high. The ability to influence upstream production is there if we choose to use it— and doing so is very, very important. It's the responsibility of the developed countries to take these types of actions to protect all countries in the long term.
The CCAC runs a number of initiatives on methane mitigation activities across the three main polluting sectors. These include:
Oil and Gas: Activities include: Global Methane Alliance, Oil and Gas Methane Partnership, Technology Demonstrations on Flaring, Oil and Gas Methane Studies, and capacity building with countries to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector (e.g. Nigeria and Mexico). These initiatives have been led by the United States, Canada, Norway, and the Netherlands, more recently with the support of the European Commission. Activities have been implemented by UNEP, the Environmental Defense Fund, and a number of other CCAC partner NGOs.
Agriculture: Activities include: Enteric fermentation, Livestock and manure management, Paddy Rice production, enhancing agriculture NDCs, and working with countries to reduce methane from agriculture (e.g. Vietnam, Indonesia, Costa Rica, Kenya, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Uruguay, Ethiopia and China). This work is being implemented by the Food and Agriculture Organization, UNEP, International Cryosphere Climate Initiative, and partner countries.
The CCAC also works closely with international partners like the Global Methane Initiative and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe on this issue – on topics such as methane emissions from coal mining and wastewater.
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