Methane 101 Series: Methane Emissions and Climate Change

Methane emissions, as a topic, has gone from relative obscurity to a unilateral agreement in the form of the Global Methane Pledge (GMP) at COP26 in a matter of years. With governments around the world introducing net-zero pledges, companies, countries and the public have been frantically identifying quick-wins to get us over the line. With so many developments in the energy sector in the last year this article series, and Orbio’s communications over the next few months, illustrate the current state of play of methane emissions from the energy sector, recent trends in emissions, impacts on stakeholders in the energy industry, what is currently being done and expected changes in the future.

Methane Reduction: A Quick-Win for Humanity

COP26 identified reducing methane emissions, especially from the energy industry, as the lowest hanging fruit of climate change mitigation. Bringing about benefits from social, economic and environmental dimensions simultaneously:

Economic

  • As methane (active component of natural gas) is a valuable product, preventing the escape of methane from energy infrastructure (e.g. through venting, leaks or flares), results in more gas that can be utilised for revenue. Therefore, more natural gas systems that prevent emissions and leaks, means more gas with lower-carbon intensities that could be sold. Currently 3% (in some areas up to 10%) of global natural gas production is lost to venting, leakage and incomplete combustion from flares. (UNECE)

Environmental

  • Methane has a global warming potential of 84 times that of CO2 over a 20 year period (25 times over 100 years). To put it into perspective, stopping methane emissions from the energy industry would have the same climate impact as taking all cars & trucks off the road globally. (MiQ)

Social

  • Methane is a noxious, invisible gas that can harm humans if inhaled in large quantities. Just stopping 45% of man-made methane emissions globally could prevent 255,000 premature deaths every year. (UNEP)

Reducing methane emissions is key to climate mitigation. Since the industrial revolution, man-made methane emissions have been responsible for 30% of global warming.

Generally the climate impact of different greenhouse gases are identified by 2 key components: the time the gases molecules stay in the atmosphere and the molecules’ ability to absorb energy. For methane, it has a much shorter lifetime in the atmosphere than CO2 (~12 years vs 300-1000+ years) but its ability to absorb energy (and thus block this energy from escaping back to space) is much higher, making methane a short-lived, but extremely dangerous greenhouse gas (IEA). 

Global methane emissions estimates remain uncertain, but most recent assessments (e.g. the Global Methane Budget) estimate annual emissions of around 580Mt, including 60% of those from man-made sources. Figure 1 shows the split of methane emissions across both natural and anthropogenic sources. 

Figure 1: Sources of methane in 2021 (IEA

While the agricultural sector is the single largest sector that contributes towards methane emissions, the energy industry has the largest short-term emission reduction capabilities as the pathways for reducing emissions in the energy sector are mostly well-known and cost-effective - which is very different to the other sectors.

In our next series we will explore current methane emission trends and the growing reporting & reduction ecosystem that is being built to reduce methane emissions in the energy sector.