Global methane emissions from the energy sector are about 70 per cent greater than the levels national governments have officially reported, according to International Energy Agency (IEA) analysis.
The IEA says its findings, released on Wednesday, underline the urgent need for enhanced monitoring efforts and stronger policy action to drive down emissions of the greenhouse gas.
The energy sector is responsible for about 40 per cent of total global methane emissions attributable to human activity, second only to agriculture. But it is where the quickest gains can be made, the IEA underlined.
Methane is responsible for about 30 per cent of the rise in global temperatures since the Industrial Revolution. It dissipates faster than carbon dioxide but is much more potent during its short lifespan, meaning that cutting its emissions would have a rapid effect on limiting global warming.
This year's IEA global methane tracker includes country-by-country emissions – though Ireland is not broken out – from coal mines and bioenergy for the first time, in addition to continued detailed coverage of oil and natural gas operations.
Methane emissions from the energy sector grew by just under 5 per cent last year. This did not bring them back to their 2019 levels and slightly lagged the rise in overall energy use, indicating some efforts to limit emissions may already be paying off.
"At today's elevated natural gas prices, nearly all of the methane emissions from oil and gas operations worldwide could be avoided at no net cost," insisted IEA executive director Fatih Birol.
A vital part of stronger action to cut methane is transparency on the size and location of the emissions, “which is why the massive under-reporting revealed by our global methane tracker is so alarming”, he added.
Last year, significant emissions were confirmed in Texas and parts of Central Asia, with Turkmenistan alone responsible for one-third of large emissions events seen by satellites, the IEA confirmed. Relatively few major leaks were detected for the major onshore oil and gas producers in the Middle East.
China is the largest source of energy-related methane emissions with 28 million tonnes (Mt), followed by Russia (18 Mt) and the US (17 Mt). Ireland's main source of emissions is from agriculture.
While measured data continues to improve, coverage provided by satellites is still far from complete, the IEA says, as “existing satellites do not provide measurements over equatorial regions, offshore operations, or northern areas such as the main Russian oil and gas producing areas”.
“Major reductions can be achieved with known technologies and with tried and tested policies that have been proven to work effectively,” Dr Birol said.
If all methane leaks from fossil fuel operations in 2021 had been captured and sold, then natural gas markets would have been supplied with an additional 180 billion cubic metres of natural gas, he noted.
“That is equivalent to all the gas used in Europe’s power sector and more than enough to ease today’s market tightness,” he said.
Intensity of methane emissions from fossil fuel operations range widely. The best performing countries and companies are more than 100 times better than the worst. Global methane emissions from oil and gas operations would fall by more than 90 per cent if all producing countries matched Norway’s emissions intensity; the lowest worldwide.
A global methane pledge, launched in November by more than 110 countries at the Cop26 in Glasgow, was led by the EU and the US. Its participants agreed to reduce methane emissions from human activities – including agriculture, the energy sector and other sources – by 30 per cent by 2030.
However, of the five countries with the largest emissions from energy – China, Russia, the US, Iran and India – only the US has signed up.
The pledge must become a landmark moment in the world’s efforts to drive down emissions, Dr Birol said. “Cutting global methane emissions from human activities by 30 per cent by the end of this decade would have the same effect on global warming by 2050 as shifting the entire transport sector to net-zero CO2 emissions.”
European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans said rapidly cutting methane emissions was a critical part of efforts to tackle the climate crisis. "We need more precise data on actual methane emissions. By measuring, reporting, and verifying, we will know where emissions cuts are most urgent. The IEA's report underscores the necessity of this effort," he believed.