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Methane emissions are severely underregulated – can COP28 change it?

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas (GHG) and the second biggest driver of global warming after carbon dioxide (CO₂). The achievement of the Paris Agreement objectives requires a significant reduction in methane emissions in the near term and over 150 countries joined the Global Methane Pledge to cut emissions by 30 per cent by 2030 compared to the 2020 levels.

While such political declarations are important, they are insufficient without implementing targeted mitigation policies. Our new research shows that this is rarely the case, as only around 13 per cent of man-made methane emissions from the biggest sources (agriculture, energy and waste) are currently regulated by policies aiming at controlling and preventing them.

Methane emissions

Our study – the first global review of methane policies implemented across the world since the 1970s – shows that the majority of policies (70 per cent) have been adopted in two regions only: North America and Europe. This is important because due to its potency and short-term lifespan, methane reduction is an effective way of reducing the rate of global warming, complementing the efforts to decrease CO2 emissions.

Since methane is the major component of natural gas, in many cases it can be reduced cost-effectively, as the investment needed in mitigation efforts could be balanced out by the revenues from selling captured methane. Currently, a lot of methane is just being wasted, undermining the achievement of the climate and energy security objectives.
Our research shows that countries which have committed to deep cuts must now expand and strengthen policies for eliminating their emissions, while other jurisdictions should step up their efforts too.

Biogenic and fossil methane are regulated differently

By examining policies to reduce methane emissions across various sources ranging from agriculture (livestock emissions, rice cultivation), solid and liquid waste management and the energy sectors (including the extraction, transportation and consumption of coal, oil and gas) we also found that the policymakers tend to regulate these sources differently.

The regulatory instruments are more frequently used to address fossil (coal, oil and gas) rather than biogenic methane (livestock, rice paddies, solid and liquid waste). Similarly, taxes and charges based on the polluter pays principle are more common to target biogenic sources, whereas financial and fiscal incentives are more frequently used to incentivise reductions from fossil fuels.

These differences in regulating different methane sources may be the result of opposition from the opposition of fossil fuel and agricultural industries to new policies that raise the cost of production for industries facing international competition, the relative importance of those industries to national and subnational economies and energy and food security/rural poverty considerations.

How effective such policies have been is far from clear though, as countries rarely quantify their emissions using direct measurements. On average policies targeting biogenic emissions are more stringent than policies targeting fossil emissions with policies targeting methane emissions from the oil and gas sector tending to be more stringent than those targeting coal mines and policies targeting methane emissions from solid and liquid waste more stringent than those addressing livestock emissions.

Improving methane policies

There are several areas where the methane policies can be improved. Adopting a unified approach to methane quantification and encouraging more direct measurements of emissions in lieu of estimating them could be the first step. Without better quantification, the effectiveness of existing policies is far from clear. For instance, the papers using satellite data contradict the policy evaluations based on the bottom-up company reporting, suggesting that in some cases the companies were misreporting their emissions. Secondly, by addressing the blind spots of current policies, as in each category of emissions there are significant sources, which are rarely tackled by the policies. These include the digestive gases of cows and other livestock (enteric fermentation), methane from the ventilation shafts of coal mines, high-emitting sources in the oil and gas sector (so-called super-emitters), and from abandoned mines and oil and gas wells.

In the oil and gas sector, emissions from non-operated joint ventures are particularly neglected by regulation. This is a type of business structure where a company owns an equity interest without assuming day-to-day operational control. Such business structures constitute an important part of the oil and gas majors’ production and revenues. While the majors have to comply with stringent health and safety and environmental protection requirements in Europe and North America, entering joint ventures in many cases allows these companies to decrease the regulatory pressure.

As Dr Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, recently put it, the next UN climate change conference (COP28) in the United Arab Emirates will be “a moment of truth” for both oil- and gas-rich countries and the oil and gas companies. Their long-term climate targets, need to be complemented by concrete climate mitigation measures and transparent data in the short term.

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