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Writer Kaitlyn Whitsitt discusses the methane pledge at COP26, its problems, and the importance of reducing global emissions of this less-talked-about greenhouse gas.

On 18 September, the European Commission published a press release announcing the Global Methane Pledge, which was presented at the Major Economies Forum the day before. At that date, the plan surrounding the greenhouse gas formally held the support of the EU and eight additional countries – Argentina, Ghana, Indonesia, Iraq, Italy, Mexico, the United Kingdom, and the United States – and planned to launch the pledge at COP 26. This Tuesday, US President Joe Biden and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen followed through with that launch, expressing their confidence in the future impact of the commitment.

The pledge aims to have cut global methane emissions by 2030 at least 30% of the 2020 levels. The pledge details these actions to be taken primarily through "domestic actions" and the "support [of] existing international methane emission initiatives". The Climate & Clean Air Coalition Secretariat managing the pledge's website predicts these actions to "eliminate over 0.2°C warming by 2050".

Methane, though possessing a shorter atmospheric lifetime than carbon dioxide, holds the track record of being the "most potent" greenhouse gas, trapping energy with greater efficiency than carbon dioxide, and then actually becoming CO₂ after its roughly 12-year lifespan. Humans account for approximately 60% of annual methane emissions; the most prominent anthropogenic source being agriculture, then energy, waste, and finally, biomass. With significant global restructuring of agricultural, energy, and waste-management sectors, it is plausible that emissions may be reduced to an extent.

"Methane, though possessing a shorter atmospheric lifetime than carbon dioxide, holds the track record of being the "most potent" greenhouse gas..."

In the case of methane specifically, it's not just about cows in fields and the human-driven emissions would not be the only pollutants slowed by a decrease in output. The 30% of emissions from natural means is predominantly sourced from wetlands and similar landscapes. Certain micro-organisms within these environments, which undergo "methanogenesis", have been found to thrive as temperature rises, by a 2014 study at Princeton University - meaning that as global temperatures go up, methane emissions may too; a ugly catch-22. Further methane deposits lie beneath permafrost in glacial landscapes, where the warming grounds trigger their release. Thus, the more humans raise the temperature, the greater the force of naturally occurring emission of methane.

While a global 30% methane reduction seems too little, it may be the most realistic goal for the countries committing to it. However, the CAIT Climate Data Explorer calculates that China, Russia, and India, as top three global methane emitters, account for approximately 33.1% of anthropogenic methane emissions. None of these countries have pledged to the agreement, and neither China nor Russia are attending this year’s conference. As countries with the capacity to pollute at a scale equivalent to the reduction goal are not supporting these cuts, the participating nations lack definite knowledge of what relative global impact their reductions will have, especially as the pattern of emissions in these countries has steadily risen over time.

"None of [China, Russia, or India] have pledged to the agreement, and neither China nor Russia are attending this year’s conference."

The 100+ countries who have agreed to the pledge represent approximately half of global methane emissions. Although Russia, India, and China have expressed intentions to cut back on coal and fossil fuel reliance, a lack of accountability in the diplomatic sector and the integration of the resources in their economy would suggest that the Global Methane Pledge signatories have quite a bit of slack to pick up by the end of the decade.


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