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Alarming fact: only 13% of methane emissions are actively monitored

Methane emissions play a very large role in climate change. In the fight against global warming, a recent study by Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) reveals a shocking fact. The experts report that only around 13 percent of global methane emissions are currently regulated. 

Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is responsible for at least 25 percent of the global warming we’re experiencing today.

Published in the journal One Earth, this comprehensive global review uncovers not only the shortage of regulations, but also raises questions about the efficacy of existing policies. 

A significant concern is that many policy decisions are based on methane emission estimations that may not accurately represent reality, potentially downplaying the severity of the problem.

Urgent action needed

In no uncertain terms, the QMUL researchers emphasize the urgent need for increased regulation and improved understanding of their impact, particularly in the context of meeting global climate targets. They propose a global, consistent approach that relies on accurate quantification and reporting, which could open up fresh avenues to substantially cut global warming levels.

To achieve the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature increase to 1.5°C, we must reduce man-made methane emissions by at least 40-45% by 2030, compared to 2020 levels. 

Reducing methane is not only a cost-effective strategy for tackling global warming, but it also offers the added benefit of improving air quality. Alarmingly, methane emissions have been rising faster in recent years than at any point since the 1980s.

Study reviewed global methane emissions policies

The QMUL study provides the first systematic review of methane policies across major man-made emission sources, including agriculture, energy, and waste. 

Researchers scrutinized 281 policies worldwide, of which 255 are currently active. They examined the policies’ geographical reach, strength, and effectiveness in monitoring and reducing methane emissions.

The study found that three regions have adopted 90 percent of the identified national policies: North America (39%), Europe (30%), and Asia Pacific (21%). 

Globally, there has been a gradual increase in methane policies since 1974. However, policies targeting fossil methane emissions, such as those from coal, oil, and gas sectors, are generally less stringent than those aimed at biogenic methane sources, especially in the waste sector.

In regions where fossil methane policies are in place, there are still opportunities for further mitigation. For instance, reducing emissions along supply chains, like emissions from Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) carrier ships, could have a significant impact. This possibility was explored by a team of QMUL researchers led by Dr. Balcombe.

A significant hurdle in controlling methane emissions is the accurate identification and quantification of sources. Technological innovations, such as satellite monitoring, can offer invaluable assistance in this area. They could aid policymakers in measuring and verifying emissions, ensuring compliance, and detecting super-emitters. 

Feedback and commentary from the research team

If we introduce policies with broader coverage, include mitigation solutions for major sources, and set measurable goals, we could significantly reduce methane emissions and slow down global warming.

Maria Olczak, lead researcher on this project from Queen Mary University of London, said: “Methane reduction is still perceived as a choice rather than a necessary step alongside CO2 reduction to combat global warming. And with so many different sources, there needs to be stronger social support and the political will to act.

“Our review highlights the value of setting policies that are predictable and clear for the industry. They will aid effective investment decisions aligned with the long-term climate mitigation goals, including the decrease in emission intensity and in production across developed and developing economies.”

Dr Paul Balcombe, study author and senior lecturer in Chemical Engineering at Queen Mary, said: “It’s shocking to see that most methane emissions aren’t regulated when they contribute heavily to global warming today, although accurately monitoring emissions is not easy. Our chances of reaching global climate targets are slim if this goes unchecked.

“The good news is that there’s an enormous opportunity to limit warming in the short term if we act fast to get on top of methane emissions. We urgently need tighter regulation on better monitoring of methane and concrete actions towards reduction measures.”

Andris Piebalgs, study author, part-time Professor at the Florence School of Regulation and a former EU Commissioner for Energy, said: “Over the last few years, we have seen growing attention to methane thanks to multilateral initiatives such as the International Methane Emissions Observatory and the Global Methane Pledge.”

“The European Union and the US EPA are now working to finalise ambitious regulations targeting methane emissions in the energy sector. I hope that the upcoming COP28 and the first Global Stocktake will make the policymakers across the world realise that methane mitigation is an effective way to enhance their climate commitments.”

More about methane emissions

Methane (CH4) is a colorless, odorless, and highly flammable gas, and it is the simplest hydrocarbon in the alkane series. It’s a key component of natural gas and a significant contributor to climate change. Here are some important facts about methane:

Natural and Man-made Sources

Methane is produced both naturally and by human activity. Natural sources include wetlands, termites, oceans, and wildfires. Man-made sources include energy production (like coal mining, oil extraction, and natural gas systems), waste treatment, biomass burning, and livestock farming (where it’s a byproduct of the digestive process in ruminants like cows).

Greenhouse Gas

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas. Although it’s less prevalent in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide (CO2), it is much more effective at trapping heat. Over a 100-year period, the global warming potential (GWP) of methane is 25 times greater than that of CO2. This means that, pound for pound, methane warms the planet 25 times more than CO2 over a century.

Shorter Atmospheric Lifespan

Methane has a relatively short lifespan in the atmosphere, around 10-12 years, compared to CO2, some of which can persist in the atmosphere for thousands of years. However, when methane breaks down, it forms ground-level ozone, another harmful air pollutant.

Climate Change Connection to Methane Emissions

Methane emissions contribute significantly to global warming and climate change. Human activities, especially the production and transport of coal, oil, and natural gas, along with agriculture, are the major sources of methane emissions.

Use as Energy Source

As the main component of natural gas, methane is a widely used energy source. It’s burned to produce heat and electricity, and used in residential, commercial, and industrial applications.

Methane Hydrates

Methane can be found in a solid form called methane hydrates or clathrates, which are ice-like structures found in deep sea floors and Arctic permafrost. They represent a vast potential energy source but also a potential source of large methane emissions if destabilized by warming.

Mitigation Strategies for Methane Emissions

Strategies for reducing methane emissions include improving the efficiency of coal mining and gas systems, promoting waste management, reducing methane emissions from livestock, and improving the handling and use of manure.

Role in Chemistry and Industry

Methane is a starting material in the production of many chemicals, including hydrogen, methanol, and synthetic hydrocarbons. It’s also used in the production of polymers and resins.

Methanogenesis and Methanotrophs

Methanogenesis is a form of anaerobic respiration used by microbes called methanogens, which produce methane. Conversely, methanotrophs are bacteria that use methane as their carbon and energy source, helping to limit the release of methane into the atmosphere.

In sum, while methane is a critical energy source and industrial chemical, its role as a potent greenhouse gas necessitates careful management and reduction strategies to combat climate change.


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