The Imperative for Methane Action

Rapid methane abatement leading to drastic emissions reductions, alongside decarbonization of our economies, needs to happen before 2030 to keep the 1.5°C warming limit within reach.
While methane has a much shorter lifetime than carbon dioxide (CO2), it is much more efficient at trapping radiation. Per unit of mass, methane has a warming effect 80 times more potent than CO2 over 20 years. Over a 100-year period, methane is 28 times stronger. 

Methane has been responsible 30% of total warming since the Industrial Revolution and is the second largest contributor to global warming after carbon dioxide (CO2). Without action, global anthropogenic methane emissions are projected to rise by up to 13% between 2020 and 2030.

Methane also harms human and ecosystem health as a primary precursor to the formation of tropospheric (ground-level) ozone. Tropospheric ozone is itself a powerful greenhouse gas as well as an air pollutant which causes approximately a million premature deaths per year globally and harms ecosystems and crops by damaging plants and suppressing growth. 

Globally, increased methane emissions are responsible for half of rise in tropospheric ozone levels. Through its contribution to producing tropospheric ozone, as well as increasing atmospheric temperatures, methane contributes to staple crop losses of up to 15% per year.

Estimated 2020 emissions and emissions in 2030 under business-as-usual (BAU), constant emissions, and with the Global Methane Pledge (GMP). Source: EDGAR Community GHG Database (historic emissions) and UNEP CCAC. (2022). Global Methane Assessment: 2030 Baseline Report

The main sectors responsible for anthropogenic methane emissions are: 

  • Agriculture (40%), including from livestock rearing, animal manure, and rice production. 

  • Fossil fuels (35%), including through leakage from natural gas and oil production and distribution systems and coal mines.

  • Waste (20%) from food and other organic materials left in landfills, open dumps, and wastewater.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global methane emissions must be reduced by 30-60% below 2020 levels by 2030 to be consistent with least cost-pathways of limiting global warming to 1.5°C this century, alongside substantial simultaneous reductions of all climate forcers such as carbon dioxide and short-lived climate pollutants.

On their own, strategies for decarbonizing the global economy will not be able to reduce methane emissions to 1.5°C-consistent levels. The structural changes that support a transformation to a zero-carbon society found in more comprehensive strategies will only achieve about 30% of the methane reductions needed over the next 30 years. Focused strategies specifically targeting methane are thus also required to achieve sufficient mitigation. As outlined in the new report The Imperative of Cutting Methane from Fossil Fuels by the International Energy Agency (IEA) in partnership with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UNEP-convened Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), the fossil fuel sector has a critical role to play in cutting methane emissions to a level consistent with 1.5°C scenario. Reductions in methane emissions from fossil fuel operations will likely need to provide half of the reduction in total methane emissions from human activities needed to 2030 to limit warming to 1.5 °C. 

As methane has an atmospheric lifetime of approximately a decade, the benefits of mitigation will accrue within a short period of time and slow the rate of atmospheric warming. This would help limit dangerous climate feedback loops, such as the melting of the polar ice caps and sea level rise, while simultaneously delivering important health, environmental, and economic benefits from reducing tropospheric ozone. 

Estimated methane emissions (Mt) by region and sector in 2030 under a Business-as-usual scenario (BAU). Source: UNEP CCAC. (2022). Global Methane Assessment: 2030 Baseline Report

The Global Methane Assessment showed that this is achievable. Available measures could reduce emissions from these major sectors by approximately 180 million tonnes a year, or as much as 45% by 2030. Most of these technical solutions can be implemented at a negative or low cost, especially in the fossil fuel and waste sectors. In the fossil fuels sector, 60-80% of oil and gas measures and 55-98% of coal measures could be implemented at a negative or low cost. In the waste sector, as much as 30-60% of measures have either negative or low cost. 

These methane reduction measures also contribute to multiple Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including climate action (SDG13), zero hunger (SDG2), and good health and well-being (SDG3). Additionally, they provide cost reductions and efficiency gains in the private sector, create jobs, and stimulate technological innovation.

Based on this imperative for rapid and substantial methane abatement, the Global Methane Pledge (GMP) was launched at COP26. Meeting the pledge would get methane emissions to a level consistent with 1.5°C scenarios and deliver vital co-benefits, preventing hundreds of thousands of premature deaths and hospital admissions, boosting global crop yields by 15 million tonnes, and preventing the loss of 60 billion work hours associated with heat exposure. 

Estimated 2020 emissions and illustrative example of the GMP-consistent methane emissions reduction pathway to 2030. Mitigation in all three main anthropogenic sectors is required to achieve the GMP target in 2030 with slightly more than half of the mitigation expected to come from the fossil fuels sector. 
Source: EDGAR Community GHG Database (historic emissions) and UNEP CCAC. (2022). Global Methane Assessment: 2030 Baseline Report