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Methane pledge must be followed by a fossil fuel phase-out target

The EU needs to improve its methane pledge. Emissions must be reduced by at least 70% by 2030 compared to 1990, in order to provide a fair contribution to the 1.5°C target.

At COP26 in Glasgow, over 90 countries, led by the US and the EU, launched the Global Methane Pledge in which they basically committed to collectively reduce global anthropogenic methane emissions, across all sectors, by at least 30 percent below 2020 levels by 2030. By doing so, these countries have recognised the importance of reducing methane emissions as an important contribution to limiting temperature rise in the short-term, while acknowledging that such action needs to be complementary to much-needed substantial reductions of CO2 emissions. While reducing emissions by one third in the next ten years might sound ambitious, the pledge is still far away from the IEA proposed pathway to reduce methane emissions from fossil fuel operations by 75% between 2020 and 2030, as part of their Net Zero by 2050 Roadmap.
The importance of methane has also been highlighted in the latest IPCC Assessment Report that indicates methane to be responsible for approximately 0.5°C of warming (figure).

Figure.  Contributions to warming.
Source: IPCC WG 6th AR

For the EU, the pledge builds further on the Commission’s Methane Strategy of October 2020, in which the Commission set out a number of actions to reduce methane emissions, in particular in the energy, agriculture and waste sectors. In this strategy the Commission puts particular emphasis on monitoring and reporting of methane emissions, while proposals to strengthen legislation are limited and emission targets absent.

This is also highlighted in the European Parliament Resolution on the Commission’s strategy that was adopted last October, in which the Parliament not only calls for a binding EU methane emissions target but also for a plan to phase out all fossil fuels in the EU. Indeed, the biggest contribution to global methane emissions from the EU happens outside of its borders, as massive amounts of methane are released by the exploration and transport of fossil fuels, of which the EU is a major importer.

Such a methane emission reduction target would need to be substantially high and go well beyond the 55% overall greenhouse gas emission reduction target for 2030. In fact, the EU reduced its methane emissions by almost 35% between 1990 and 2019 and a substantial additional reduction is to be expected in 2020 (at least 10%) bringing methane emission reductions beyond 40%. Applying the Global Methane Pledge to the EU would need the EU to reduce its methane emissions by at least 60%. However, as we know, in order to provide a fair contribution to the 1.5°C target of the Paris Agreement, the EU’s overall greenhouse gas emissions will need to be reduced by more than 65% by 2030. Because methane emissions have been reduced more than other gases, for this approach to continue, EU methane emissions from all sectors will need to be reduced by at least 70% by 2030, compared to 1990 emissions.

All the above is based on the current approach of comparing methane (and other short-lived greenhouse gases) with CO2 emissions. In order to have a uniform reporting system the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has developed reporting guidelines that calculate the impact of methane emissions over a 100-year timeline (also called GWP100 approach, where GWP stands for Global Warming Potential), thereby reducing the short-term impact methane has on temperature rise. Some, including the European Parliament, are also asking to assess methane over a 20-year timeframe (GWP20), which would make the importance of methane in the short term much more visible. However, there are clear risks linked to such an approach. In the EU in particular, using a GWP20 approach would reduce incentives to cut both CO2 emissions and methane emissions. A simple calculation shows how this would happen.

Table 1 is based on a GWP100 approach and shows that emissions from methane have been reduced well beyond average.

Assuming the EU sticks to its ambition to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 52.8% by 2030 (which together with removals of 2.2% would result in a 55% net reduction), and assuming reductions are evenly spread across the different gases (which is theoretical), we would get the results to be seen in table 2.

Applying a GWP20 approach to these numbers would give the results seen in table 3.

As the tables indicate, using a GWP20 approach would NOT lead to more ambitious reduction targets, neither for methane emissions nor for CO2 emissions. It is therefore questionable whether there is any necessity to use this argument.

Wendel Trio

Table 1. Emission reductions between 1990 and 2019 using GWP100.

   all (tCO2-e) CO2 (tCO2-e)  CH4 (tCO2-e) other GHGs
1990  4,713,874 3,711,219 591,120 411,535
2019 (%/1990) 3,493,574 (-26%)  2,783,082 (-25%) 385,154 (-35%)  325,338 (-21%)
% of total emissions in 2019 100% 80% 11% 9%

Table 2. Assumed emission reductions between 1990 and 2030 using GWP100.

  all (tCO2-e) CO2 (tCO2-e) CH4 (tCO2-e) other GHGs
1990 4,713,874 3,711,219 591,120 411,535
2030 (%/1990) 2,224,423 (-52.8%)  1,772,040 (-52.3%) 245,235 (-58.5%) 207,148 (-49.7%)
% of total emissions in 2030  100% 80% 11%  9%


Table 3. The same emission reductions as in table 1 and table 2 using GWP20.

  all (tCO2-e) CO2 (tCO2-e) CH4 (tCO2-e) other GHGs
1990 7,078,354 3,711,219 2,955,600 411,535
2019 5,034,190 (-29%) 2,783,082 (-25%) 1,925,770 (-35%) 325,338 (-21%)
% of total emissions in 2019 100% 55% 38% 7%
2030 (%/1990) 3,337,534 (-52.8%)  1,845,109 (-50.3%) 1,276,734 (-56.8%) 215,691 (-47.6%)
% of total emissions in 2030 100%  55% 38% 7%

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