Rapid Methane Cuts Essential to Meet Climate Targets – Would Generate Health Co-Benefits
Methane, a colorless gas, is released from a rig during oil and gas extraction – other key human-made sources include agriculture, livestock production and poor waste management.

International climate targets cannot be met without rapid and drastic cuts to global methane emissions, according to a series of reports published on Wednesday by the Global Climate and Health Alliance (GCHA).

The reports found that reducing methane emissions by 45% by 2030 would avert nearly 0.3C degrees of global warming by 2045, a margin that could prove critical to global ambitions to keep temperature rise at or below 1.5C degrees.

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that is 80 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. It is emitted by livestock production, rice cultivation and from uncontrolled waste dumping, as well as gas flaring and leaks from fossil fuel extraction, as well as from natural sources like peat bogs. Overall, methane emissions are estimated to have caused more than 30% of global warming to date.

But since it´s lifespan in the atmosphere is limited, reducing methane emissions would deliver quick gains for climate as well as health – where methane is a key contributor to ground level ozone levels. The adverse health outcomes of ground-level ozone include cardiovascular diseases, asthma, and respiratory illnesses which result in roughly one million premature deaths every year.

“Every pathway to limiting climate warming to close to 1.5C demands rapid, substantial cuts to methane,” said Dr Jeni Miller, Executive Director of the GCHA, which is a network of health professional and health civil society organizations addressing climate change. The pathway to limit global warming to 1.5C  set out by scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) also includes substantial cuts to methane emissions as a key component of its roadmap. 

Low hanging fruit ?

Livestock production is another key source of human-produced methane emissions.

Reducing methane emissions has long been seen as ¨low-hanging fruit¨ in climate policy circles – although political action has lagged behind its mitigation potential. While carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for centuries after it is emitted, methane has an atmospheric lifespan of just 12 years. This makes methane an ideal target to achieve rapid reduction of the impact of the greenhouse gas effect on global temperatures.

“Methane mitigation offers a quick win, while tackling CO2 is the long game – at this stage in the climate crisis, we need both,” said Miller. “Fortunately, both offer opportunities that could improve people’s health.”

Global momentum building – but COP28 host UAE fails to report methane emissions

Methane emissions are set to be a key topic of discussion at the UN climate summit, COP28, set to take place in the United Arab Emirates in December later this year.

Around 150 countries have signed the Global Methane Pledge since its launch at COP26 in Glasgow in 2021. The pledge commits countries to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030.  See related story:

Africa’s Methane Gamble – Can A Climate-Warming Gas Become An Asset to Health?

The UAE has said that it will work with NGOs and governments on a plan to slash methane emissions ahead of the arrival of delegates in Dubai. However, the host nation has also been charged with failing to report its own methane emissions for around a decade.

The fossil fuel, agricultural and waste management sectors are the major sources of human-produced methane emissions, according to GCHA.

“We’re constantly learning more about the extent and impact of methane sources,” said Miller. “Methane leaks from fossil fuel production and use are far greater than previously thought, and leaks are occurring at every stage in the fossil fuel life cycle.”

The extent of the UAE’s commitment to reducing methane emissions and acting as a shepherd of international climate goals remains questionable, given that the president of COP28, Sultan al Jaber, is also the CEO of the UAE’s state oil giant.

Agriculture, energy, and waste management systems must change

Birds scavenge for food scraps at a landfill in Connecticut. Landfills and sewage pools are another major source of methane emissions; the gas is released as disposed organic materials – including paper, food scraps, and human waste, biodegrade.

The technology to slash methane emissions already exists, but it will take individual and system changes to make it happen, said GCHA.

One important way to slash methane emissions would be to plug leaks during fossil fuel extraction to prevent methane gas escape,  employing the latest technologyies. Shifting away from fossil fuels to renewable energy at a faster rate would also make an impact, but the reports concede that eliminating fossil fuels from the global energy system is not likely in the immediate future.

“Cutting methane emissions from fossil fuel production, distribution, and end use through readily available, cost-effective solutions is a powerful lever for reducing near-term warming and avoiding dangerous warming tipping points, while also yielding benefits for people’s health,” the reports say.

Source: Climate and Clean Air Coalition.

Other ways to reduce methane emissions include rapidly moving towards regenerative agriculture, improving access to nutritious, plant-rich whole foods diets, and making existing livestock healthier. Improved waste management by composting or, better yet, developing industrial-scale biogas digesters to handle  food, farm, and human waste will also deliver big benefits, harnessing methane for fuel, which can then be used for energy production, in what is an almost climate-neutral process.

Biogas plant, South Africa. Pilots abound but largescale harnessing of methane has yet to take place.

“Methane’s effects on the environment are extensive and well understood,” said Amanda Quintana, the project director for Abt Associates who was involved with the reports. “What we need now is to mobilize the health community and help people understand that, because methane has both indirect and direct impacts on human health, there are direct health benefits to reducing methane emissions, both in the short- and long-term.”

Quintana added that the evidence in the reports is not new but puts the focus on the extreme health impacts of methane. “The report highlights these health impacts and linkages to make it easier for people to understand the important role the health community can play in methane mitigation.”

Stefan Anderson contributed reporting for this story. 

Image Credits: Clean Air Task Force , Evan Schneider, United Nations multimedia , SuSanA Secretariat/Flickr.

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