Emergency? Part 4

Focus on Methane

We give lots of lip service describing climate change as an emergency or existential threat.  According to the Climate Emergency Declaration Organization, 2336 jurisdictions around the world have declared it to be an emergency, but we are not really acting like it.  There are many possible emergency actions.  I’m looking at 6 that could make a significant difference, are doable, but require real sacrifice and hard choices:

      1. Ending financing of fossil fuel projects
      2. Accelerating renewable siting on- and offshore
      3. Fast tracking transmission
      4. Requiring large-scale carbon capture
      5. International agreement and focus on methane
      6. Ending deforestation

Today, it’s faster action on methane.  (Here’s Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3).

At CLEE, we are doing quite a bit of work to promote reduction of methane emissions from all sectors (agriculture (livestock and rice), energy (oil & gas and coal), waste (landfills and sewage)).  The reason is simple:  methane represents the best short-term opportunity to limit the impacts of anthropogenic warming.  Methane has a comparatively short life in the atmosphere (about 12 years, as opposed to 100 years or more for CO2) and high potency (84 times stronger than CO2, averaged over 20 years). Thus, reducing methane emissions today can quickly and dramatically impact the trajectory of the climate crisis. Earth is now expected to breach the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 °C “guardrail,” after which irreversible climate cascades will become far more likely. But with rapid methane cuts, we could prevent up to 0.3 °C of warming by 2050.  Methane forms when organic material decomposes in oxygen-free conditions (e.g., animal stomachs, shale gas formations, piles of food waste). Methane is primarily released by humans through agriculture, energy production, wastewater, and landfills.

California has established a suite of strategies that lead the world in their ambition and sophistication. These include the Landfill Methane Regulation, SLCP Reduction Strategy, 2022 Scoping Plan, and SB 1383. The latter policy requires a 40% reduction of methane emissions across all sectors by 2030.  The rest of the world is starting to catch up.  The EU and US sponsored the Global Methane Pledge, which now has 150 signatories worldwide.  The Inflation Reduction Act includes significant penalties for methane emissions in the US from large-scale oil and gas operations as well as funding for closing leaking oil wells.  These are encouraging developments, but in an emergency, they are not enough.

Emergency Actions

First, the Global Methane Pledge has no requirements and is not enforceable.  There should be a concerted effort to reach an international agreement for methane reduction, akin to the Kigali Amendment, which phases out another important greenhouse gas – hydrofluorocarbons — with emission reduction dates, enforcement, and funding and technical assistance to help countries meet the targets.  Right now, there is insufficient international will to do this.

Second, oil companies should be required to fund plugging and closure of the tens of thousands of abandoned oil wells in the US and around the world to stop leaks and emissions.  The oil industry has managed to avoid billions of dollars of liability whereby the major oil companies sell their old oil wells to undercapitalized companies that then abandon the wells and declare bankruptcy or otherwise dissolve, leaving emitting wells and cleanup costs to taxpayers.  This is a massive subsidy to oil companies and a significant source of methane emissions.  Right now, oil companies have political power sufficient to preclude a change in liability that would result in oil industry obligation.

Third, we need to speed research and testing on feed additives for cattle (such as red seaweed) to reduce enteric emissions, a very significant source of methane worldwide.  Results have been promising and efforts need to be sped up.  The same holds for methane emissions from rice cultivation, which accounts for 8 to 12 percent of worldwide methane emissions.  Research in China and elsewhere (including at UC Davis) shows that methane emissions can be reduced significantly based on the timing and extent of field flooding and other techniques that could be adopted rapidly.  Right now, research is under resourced.

Fourth, landfills account for about 15 percent of methane emissions, although that may be an underestimate because measuring and monitoring is surprisingly limited.  Virtually every jurisdiction in the world has landfills, and methane emissions can be reduced through multiple strategies, including some that result in minimal cost (such as biocovers).  Action to reduce landfill emissions should be dramatically escalated.  Right now, we lack some important measurement and monitoring data, but that could be changing.

Fifth, coal mine methane is a large source, particularly in China.  It can also be captured and used far more effectively than is currently the case.  Methane escapes from closed mines as well as operating mines, so coal mine methane capture needs to be part of a no-coal future.  A much greater level of capture from coal mines could be instituted quickly.  Right now, there is insufficient will to institute the needed controls at coal mines.

With the launch of multiple methane detection satellites scheduled over the next few months, methane emissions data will expand rapidly.  Now is the time to accelerate action and ambition with a sense of urgency.  Actions reflecting a sense of emergency should include:

      • Concerted effort towards an international agreement for specified methane emissions reductions, technical assistance, methane action plans, and institutional support
      • Industry funding and contracting for plugging and closure of orphan wells
      • 80% reduction of oil and gas emissions by 2030 worldwide (either as part of international agreement or independently)
      • Capture high percentage of methane emissions from coal mines by 2028 (either as part of international agreement or independently)
      • Acceleration of research on livestock feed additives and rice cultivation actions
      • Worldwide focus on measuring, monitoring, and reducing landfill emissions
      • Protocol for satellite leak detection data to be provided to leaking facility and for follow-up action by jurisdiction

These initiative require actions across multiple sectors and multiple actors. Some are more immediately viable than others.  For example, the International Energy Agency identifies emissions from both coal mining and oil and gas operations as the most achievable in a short time period.  But we need action across all methane sectors and an institutional commitment among jurisdictions around the world.  The climate change emergency response need not be frantic, at least not until climate change impacts become even more acute.

Next time:  ending deforestation.

Reader Comments

5 Replies to “Emergency? Part 4”

  1. Ken, Congratulations and Thank You for your Excellent Recommendations, especially at a time when increasingly disastrous climate changes appear to be totally out of control because our politicians are more concerned about getting reelected and overpaid for failure than the survival of the human race.

    PLEASE find a way to unite academics around the world to immediately inform, educate and motivate the peoples of the planet to demand immediate implementation of actions such as those you are recommending.

    The necessity for leadership like yours is also most unfortuately due to the failures of international organizations that are controlled by the Power of Money and we muswt overcome this tragedy immediately.

    I wish you and your colleagues The Best at making up for lost time as time runs out faster than ever before.

    Our newest generations depend on leaders like you more than ever before to guarantee an acceptable quality of life for their future.


      FROM GGSC EDGE: “Climate, Hope and Science” From the Science of Happiness

      KELTNER: What do you think are some of the things that people can do today in this moment of tapping into that sense of personal power?

      SOLNIT: One of the best answers I ever saw came while I was sitting on the floor of a sort of radical space in Paris while the Paris Climate Treaty was being negotiated or sitting there with a very burnt out Bill McKibben, because he worked so hard for so long for climate action. And somebody said, “What’s the best thing I can do as an individual?” And he gives his answer a lot. He said, “Stop being an individual.”

      Individually, we mostly don’t have a lot of power. Together, the ants can move the elephant.


    July will end up as the Earth’s hottest month on record, and quite possibly the hottest single month in some 120,000 years, scientists reported Thursday.

    “We don’t have to wait for the end of the month to know this. Short of a mini-Ice Age over the next days, July 2023 will shatter records across the board,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said Thursday.


    In “The Lessons of History,” historians Will and Ariel Durant concluded, after over 40 years of research and documentation that “When a group or a civilization declines, it is through no mystic limitation of a corporate life, but through the failure or its political or intellectual leaders to meet the challenges of change.”

    No leaders seem to have paid attention (see UN statements above) and our newest generations shall pay the most tragic price in history for these failures.

Comments are closed.

About Ken

Ken is the director of Project Climate at UC Berkeley's Center for Law, Energy, & Environment. He spent eight years as a Senior Policy Advisor to Governor Jerry Brow…

READ more

About Ken

Ken is the director of Project Climate at UC Berkeley's Center for Law, Energy, & Environment. He spent eight years as a Senior Policy Advisor to Governor Jerry Brow…

READ more