Africa’s Methane Gamble – Can A Climate-Warming Gas Become An Asset to Health?
Infrared camera reveals escaped methane emissions from oil rig. Methane leaks from oil and gas make a major contribution to global warming.

GLASGOW – Nearly two dozen African countries, including some of the continent’s biggest methane- producing nations, have now signed The Global Methane Pledge, launched Tuesday at COP26 by United States President Joe Biden and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. 

While the pledge was initially announced in September with nine countries signed on, it grew to over 80 countries during the announcement at COP26, and has since expanded to 105 countries according to US climate envoy John Kerry. 

The pledge list includes nearly two dozen African countries, including economies that heavily rely on methane-producing fossil fuel extraction.

Those include Benin, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Côte D’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti and Ethiopia. Others are Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Malawi, Morocco, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, Republic of the Congo and Rwanda. The list also includes Senegal, Togo, Tunisia, and Zambia.

Under the Global Methane Pledge, countries have committed to reduce their methane emissions by at least 30% from 2020 levels by 2030. They have also committed to moving towards using best available inventory methodologies to quantify methane emissions, with a particular focus on high emission sources.  

Methane is a heat-trapping and climate warming gas nearly 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. But unlike CO2, which persists in the atmosphere for centuries, methane emissions only last for about a decade. So sharply reducing methane emissions can rapidly slow the pace of global warming at a time when countries are still postponing painful CO2 reductions. 

Controlling methane emissions is increasingly being seen by many policymakers as one of the last ditch strategies that might help keep average temperature change to 1.5 C or below.  

And the number of signatories to the pledge, including from Africa and the developing world, signal the growing interest in methane – previously a focus largely of high-income countries, like the United States. 

“The countries who have joined the Pledge represent all regions of the world and include representatives from developed and developing nations,” the European Commission said in a statement, noting that “the strong global support for the Pledge illustrates growing momentum to swiftly reduce methane emissions—widely regarded as the single most effective strategy to reduce global warming.”

Methane & health linkages – powerful but little discussed 

Birds scavenge for food scraps at a landfill in Danbury Connecticut. Landfills well as sewage pools are a major source of methane emissions, which release the gas as they biodegrade.

Although the biggest sources of methane are escaped emissions from poorly designed or managed oil and natural gas extraction, they are by no means the only ones. 

Methane emissions also are produced by animal manure and human sewage, flooded rice fields; poorly managed waste landfills, as well as lakes and wetlands. Livestock methane emissions represent a whopping  32 per cent of human-caused methane emissions. Fermentation of flooded rice fields represents another 10%.  

And here, mitigation measures can also yield health co-benefits that range from reduced air pollution to reduced disaster risks – that are not yet well appreciated.

A Global Methane Assessment undertaken by the UN Environment-supported Climate and Clean Air Coalition that if a range of creative measures were implemented, human-caused methane emissions can be cut by 45 per cent this decade. 

That would significantly slow the current space of climate change, while also saving 260,000 lives from air pollution, avoiding 775,000 asthma-related hospital visits, and 25 million tonnes of crop loss every year, the assessment concluded.  

The methane-manure-air pollution mix 

Archbishop Abuna Gregorious of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church attending a workshop on biogas and sustainable farming methods in Ethiopia as part of an interfaith environmental action movement in sub-Saharan Africa “Many Heavens, One Earth, Our Continent’. But small-scale biogas projects have yet to catch the eye of big global investors.

Few people realize for instance, that livestock manure, along with being a major source of methane that heats the planet, is also a key source of airborne releases of ammonia particulates – which contribute to air pollution. Such ammonia emissions are already one of the largest sources of PM2.5 air pollution in Europe – and as livestock production accelerates elsewhere, the trajectory may be similar. 

And that is in addition to the multiple health impacts of excessive red meat consumption – which is driving rapid expansion of livestock production – and with it, more methane. 

Conversely, methane harnessed from livestock manure, landfills and waste can also be used as a clean, and climate neutral source of electricity and household cooking fuels – reducing both outdoor and indoor air pollution from reliance on coal and wood fuels that billions of people still use for cooking and heating.  

Simply improving manure management can also reduce methane emissions, while reducing disease risks and improving the quality of soils – leading to  more healthy food production as well. Other strategies, such as the seasonal draining of flooded rice fields can reduce methane emissions from rice production which contribute some 10% to global methane emissions – while also reducing risks of vector borne disease from mosquitoes that breed in rice paddies.    

Africa’s soaring methane emissions 

While the African continent contributes proportionally far less to climate change than almost any other region of the world, recent studies have shown that it is facing a burgeoning methane crisis.

Available data from the World Bank show Africa’s methane emissions have more than doubled since 1971 – rising from about 410,000 kt of CO2-eq. to nearly one million kt of CO2-eq  in 2018. 

Using satellite data, a 2019 study illustrated how emissions of methane in Sub-Saharan Africa surged from 2010 to 2016, with the East African region accounting for most of the increase. 

A July 2021 paper focusing on North Africa also reported that summertime methane emissions from Africa’s Nile Delta region are higher than predicted by inventory estimates, attributing this trend to agricultural practices and the Nile’s influence.

In its report on Global Methane Assessment, the UN Environment Programme and the Climate & Clean Air Coalition identified livestock and oil and gas as the highest methane mitigation potentials in Africa considering they are the leading sources of methane emissions in Africa.

Those emissions are steadily growing along with the expanding oil and gas industry in countries such as Nigeria and Ghana – as well as the expansion of livestock production of cattle, sheep and other ruminant livestock. 

Natural sources also make significant contributions to Africa’s methane emissions – releasing the gas during the process of plant and animal matter decay. 

One recent study estimates that African wetland methane (CH4) emissions represent  about 12% of global wetland emissions. These wetlands emissions are concentrated in the sub-Saharan tropics, including the Congo basin. 

Some lakes also store large quantities of methane, due to certain geographic anomalies. In 1986, Lake Nyos, a tiny volcanic crater lake in Cameroon suddenly released large quantities of CO2 from a volcanic vent at the bottom of the lake, asphyxiating some 1,800 people living around its shores – in a phenomenon known as a limnic eruption.  

Lake Kivu, which straddles Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, poses a much larger safety risk to the nearly two million inhabitants living along the lake’s shores – including about 1 million people in the provincial DRC capital city of Goma. 

Lake Kivu as seen from the Rwandan side of the border – dangerous methane deposits lurk under the lake carved from a volcanic crater.

Buried in the deepest straits of the scenic lake are some 300 billion cubic meters of CO2 and 60 billion cubic meters of methane, and those gas concentrations have been steadily increasing over past decades. 

Fears that Lake Kivu could explode heightened recently in May, when the nearby Mount Nyiragongo volcano erupted, setting off a chain reaction of hundreds of earthquakes in the subsequent days. While the worst scenario was avoided, scientists still fear that over time, the nearby seismic activity could lead to the sudden, lethal release of methane and CO2 now buried deep in the lake – either setting the city on fire – or asphyxiating its residents. 

If Kivu were to erupt, “it would be completely catastrophic”, limnologist Sally MacIntyre of the University of California, Santa Barbara, told Knowable last year.  

Pledges from the African powerhouses of Kenya and Nigeria –  but no concrete plans 

Following the announcement of the pledge, this Health Policy Watch correspondent visited the pavilions of some of the African countries that have reportedly committed to the pledge for further clarification on their methane emission reduction plans. However, none had any concrete plans as at the time of filing this report.

At the Nigerian pavilion, officials said bilateral meetings are ongoing on how the country will meet the pledge. The representatives of Kenya, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and South Africa also noted that no approved plans are available yet for their respective countries regarding their methane pledge.

Under the Paris Agreement,  each country is required to outline and communicate their post-2020 climate actions. Known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), they highlight the steps that respective countries are taking towards emissions reductions and also aim to address steps taken to adapt to climate change impacts. Most of the NDCs submitted by most of the African countries that have committed to the methane pledge did not include clear plans on how to reduce their methane emission. 

Algeria, Seychelles and Gambia moving on methane recovery from solid waste – and rice fields  

Constantly flooded rice paddies, like the one portrayed here in Vietnam are a source of 10% of global methane emissions – as well as being breeding grounds for vector borne diseases.

At the same time, there are some indications that certain African countries are jumping on the train with more practical plans. 

Algeria, for instance, has expressed its interest in reducing emissions in the country by prioritizing the management of household solid waste. By 2030, the country aims to have fully covered waste dumps in its territory.

Seychelles also stated in its NDC that it intends to tackle its methane emissions by installing biogas plants for methane recovery in landfill areas. 

Gambia, on the other hand, aims to reduce methane emissions from the country’s flooded rice fields by replacing them with efficient dry upland rice. It also expressed interest in tackling methane emissions through water management, having less flooded areas and by reducing the usage of fertilizer. It also mentioned methane capture and flaring from landfills, composting and reducing waste generation by recycling. 

“Methane capture in landfills provides substantial mitigation potential at low cost,” the country stated in its NDC.

The healthy food systems option – reducing methane and zoonoses together 

Vegetable seller at Gosa Market in Abuja, Nigeria. Traditional markets provide access to healthy, fresh foods that play critical roles in feeding individuals and households globally.

Shortly after the Global Methane Pledge was announced, a side event at the WHO COP26 Health Pavilion hosted a panel on tackling methane emissions by arguing for transformative, climate resilient and healthy food systems.

The panelists noted that livestock agriculture’s contributions to greenhouse gas emissions are up to 20% and called for levelling the the playing field for the plant-based sector – to curb soaring increases in meat production which are unhealthy for the planet as well as for people.. 

“It’s time also to reform, for example, taxation subsidies. To lead by example in catering. We really have to create this enabling environment for consumers to make healthier and more sustainable food choices,” said Raphaël Podselver, Head of UN Advocacy at Berlin-based ProVeg International, a non-governmental organisation that works in the field of food system change.

In her presentation, Dr Martina Stephany, Director of the Farm Animals Department at FOUR PAWS, an animal welfare organization, said animal welfare is significantly underestimated when it comes to the prevention of pandemics. 

“If we look closer at infectious diseases, 75% of them are zoonoses (diseases which can be transmitted to humans from animals) and 50% of zoonoses are caused by agricultural drivers, especially animal agriculture which is driving zoonoses. Probably one of the ugliest manifestations of this broken relationship is wildlife markets and factory farming,” she said.

She described zoonoses as a symptom of a broken relationship between humans, animals and nature; and the reluctance of governments across the world to be actively against factory farming to its business potential.

Other win-wins:  Better manure management 

Manure heaps outside an animal barn in Iringa, Tanzania.

Simply improving livestock manure management can also reduce methane emissions from livestock. 

A project by the UN Environment’s Climate and Clean Air Coalition is supporting such improved management in China – by carefully controlling livestock’s intake of feed, water and antibiotics – among other factors. 

 “Not only will manure management help with China’s national efforts to become carbon neutral, it will also help with air pollution and improving soil quality and agricultural productivity,” said Professor Dong Hongmin, the Deputy Director at the Institute of Environmental and Sustainable Development in Agriculture (IEDA) at the Chinese Academy of Agriculture Sciences (CAAS), who is working with the CCAC on the project.

“Livestock farming is developing rapidly in China,” adds Professor Li Yue, of the Chinese Academy of Agriculture Sciences (CAAS), in a CCAC interview. 

“Air pollution was very serious in the regions Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei during 2015-2017 and ammonia is one of the key driving forces of air pollution, and manure is a major source of ammonia emissions.”

The project is also looking at how to reduce methane emissions from rice fields – through the seasonal draining of rice fields, or other strategies. 

Biogas production – potential for major scale up

Biogas collection system at Wambizzi abattoir in Kampala, Uganda, sponsored by ILRI, the International Livestock Research Institute.

Another oft-ignored option is the capture and containment of methane to produce biogas that can be burned as a clean fuel for cooking and heating – which is effectively climate neutral. 

Biogas can be produced from compostable food scraps and other biodegradable material that is far too often sent to landfills; from human and animal sewage – and even from natural, underground sources like the methane trapped  in Lake Kivu. 

When biogas is used in low- income countries as a cooking fuel replacement for coal or wood, there are other huge health payoffs – reducing both household air pollution exposures from polluting dung, wood and coal cookstoves; reducing deforestation from charcoal production and wood scavenging; and also reducing valuable time spent in fuel collection – a task usually assigned to women and children.    

Small scale biogas production has already been happening for a few decades in a range of rural settings around the world. China’s Schezhuan province, for instance, has invested heavily in household biogas facilities for its pig-farmers – allowing them to rely upon the fuel for cooking as an alternative to coal bricks, for at least part of the year. 

Nepal has also supported the creation of home-based biogas facilities – that convert both human and livestock waste to a clean cooking fuel. 

In northern Europe and other developed countries, some cities are investing in biogas to manage urban sewage waste, while large farms are creating biogas out of animal manure.  In larger, more industrialized biogas production, the raw biogas may undergo a further chemical process to transform it to bioLPG. BioLPG can be subject to much higher pressure, as well as being transported in tanks, like fossil-fuel derived propane. 

A 2020 assessment of the scale-up potential of bioLPG potential in Africa by the Global LPG Partnership found that some 1.65 million households across Ghana, Rwanda and Kenya could be provided with clean bio-LPG fuels by 2030 through the implementation of just five large-scale biogas capture projects in those countries, deemed to be economically and technically feasible.

Meanwhile, on the shores of the explosive Lake Kivu, Rwanda in 2015 launched a major extraction project, known as KivuWatt, to capture and harness the dissolved methane from the lake – producing 26 megawatts of electrical power a year so far.  

Once fully operational, the project is supposed to generate 100 megawatts of power – in a country where only 35% of the population have access to electricity.  

Scale-up to 75 MW production was already supposed to happen by 2020 – but it reportedly remains pending. That is just one more reflection of how creative solutions to the global methane problem need a much bigger push – by global health and climate leaders – as well as financiers.  

See More events at the WHO COP26 Health Pavilion here

Image Credits: Clean Air Task Force , Evan Schneider, United Nations multimedia , GF Gabriella , Bac Ha, Viet Nam. UN Photo/Kibae, Michael Casmir, Pierce Mill Media, ILRI/Sonja Leitner., ILRI/Vianney Tumwesige.

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