Slash methane emissions, UNEP sponsored report recommends

A United Nations-sponsored study has urged member states to reduce methane emissions to avert a rise in global temperatures.

Methane is an extremely powerful greenhouse gas. It is a key ingredient in smog, which causes all sorts of problems including air pollution and respiratory illnesses.

The World Health Organization estimates that the air pollution is linked to the premature deaths of 7 million people around the world every year.

A report published in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) on August 13, 2019 showed that long term exposure to ambient air pollutants was associated with emphysema and worsening lung function.

In terms of respiratory disease risk, the study found that air pollution in the United States alone can impair lung performance.

Since the pre-industrial era, methane is estimated to have caused at least 30 per cent of global warming.

According to the study published on May 6, 2021, methane emissions caused by human activity can be reduced by up to 45 per cent by 2030.

This will help restrict the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius in line with the Paris Agreement on climate change, according to a UN-backed report .

The study was carried out by the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), a global partnership of governments and non-State partners, and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

Dubbed The Global Methane Assessment , the study explores some of the advantages to be gained from methane emission reduction. The UNEP assessment also shows how this can be done quickly and efficiently.

Dr Drew Shindell, who is a Professor of Climate Science at Duke University in the USA, chaired the assessment for the CCAC.

Dr Shindell said urgent steps must be taken to reduce methane emissions this decade.    

“To achieve global climate goals, we must reduce methane emissions while also urgently reducing carbon dioxide emissions,” Dr Shindell said. “The good news is that most of the required actions bring not only climate benefits but also health and financial benefits, and all the technology needed is already available,”he added.

Cutting down methane emissions will prevent some 260,000 premature deaths and 775,000 asthma-related hospital visits every year. The reduction will also save 25 million tonnes in crop losses. 

Methane emissions due to human activity come from the three sectors of fossil fuels including oil and gas processing, landfills and waste as well as agriculture, mainly in the livestock sector. 

The report notes that human-caused methane emissions are increasing faster than at any time since scientists and researchers began tracking this data in the 1980s.

Despite the economic recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, statistics from the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) indicate that methane amounts in the atmosphere reached record levels in 2020. 

It is underscores why international action is urgently needed to stop the rising temperatures which would lead to unprecedented carbon dioxide (CO2) emission levels.

“To reach the Paris Agreement of 1.5 degrees Centigrade, we must reduce methane emissions in three sectors, namely fossil fuels (60 percent), waste (30-35 percent) and agriculture (20-25 percent),” reads the UNEP tweet on its Twitter handle. 

UNEP notes that methane breaks down and leaves the atmosphere after ten years. This is unlike CO2, which can remain in the atmosphere for centuries.

Concerted action to cut down methane emissions can rapidly reduce the rate of global warming in the next few years. 

According to UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen, slashing methane levels is the most effective measure the world can use to reduce carbon dioxide and slow down climate change. 

“Cutting methane is the strongest lever we have to slow climate change over the next 25 years and complements necessary efforts to reduce carbon dioxide. The benefits to society, economies, and the environmental are numerous and far outweigh the cost”, said the UNEP boss.

Methane accounts for almost 20 percent or one-fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions, says Rick Duke, who is the Senior Advisor to John Kerry, the US Special Presidential Envoy on Climate Change.

Mr Duke reiterated the US commitment to reducing methane emission levels at hoe and abroad via the use of various measures including standards and innovation to reduce emissions in various industrial and agricultural processes.  

“The United States is committed to driving down methane emissions both at home and globally through measures like research and development, standards to control fossil and landfill methane, and incentives to address agricultural methane”, he said. 

With a special focus on the fossil fuel sector, the assessment identifies readily available solutions that would reduce methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030.

About 60 per cent of the proposed solutions to high methane emissions are low cost and half have “negative costs”, meaning companies will actually make money from taking action.

The document refers to the possible emission reduction as“mitigation potential” which varies between countries and regions.

For instance, the largest potential in Europe and India is in the waste sector.

In contrast, China has the largest potential for emission reduction from measures that can be taken to regulate coal production and livestock.

In Africa, the sectors with the biggest potential are livestock followed by oil and gas.

Report authors are however cautioning UN member states that more needs to be done in addition to the methane emission mitigation measures.

“But targeted measures alone are not enough”, said the partners.  “Additional measures that do not specifically target methane, like a shift to renewable energy, residential and commercial energy efficiency, and a reduction in food loss and waste, can reduce methane emissions by a further 15 per cent by 2030,”they added.

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