Cutting methane emissions most impactful way to limit climate change

New report confirms methane responsible for 30% of global temperature rise to date

Governments and energy companies have major opportunities to reduce methane emissions, which provides the most impactful way to limit near-term climate change, according an International Energy Agency (IEA) report released on Thursday.

Methane is responsible for around 30 per cent of the global rise in temperatures to date, it confirms. Rapid steps to tackle methane emissions from oil, gas and coal operations would have immediate impacts because of the potent effect of methane on global warming and large scope for cost-effective actions, the report concludes.

It outlines pathways to curtailing methane emissions from fossil fuel operations with a view to a 75 per cent cut by 2030. The largest source of global methane emissions from human activities is agriculture, closely followed by the energy sector, which includes emissions from coal, oil, natural gas and biofuels. Agriculture accounts for a third of Ireland’s overall emissions; most of which are made up to methane.

Fossil fuel operations globally emitted close to 120 million tonnes of methane in 2020, nearly one-third of all methane emissions from human activity, the IEA says. Much of these emissions are simply leakage along the production and supply chain that operators fail to capture or avert.


There are cost-effective ways to limit these emissions, especially in the oil and gas sector. The IEA estimates that more than 70 per cent of current emissions from oil and gas operations are technically feasible to prevent and around 45 per cent could typically be avoided at no net cost because the value of the captured gas is higher than the cost of the abatement measure. This share would be much higher at the moment, given record highs in natural gas prices.

The report provides insights and guidance for governments, regulators and the energy industry in the lead-up to the COP26 global summit and beyond. It identifies and quantifies a range of measures, including policy and regulatory actions, voluntary industry initiatives, and improvements in emissions measurement and reporting.

"At a time when we are constantly being reminded of the damaging effects of climate change, it is inexcusable that massive amounts of methane continue to be allowed to just seep into the air from fossil fuel operations,'' said IEA director Fatih Birol.

“These emissions are avoidable, the solutions are proven and even profitable in many cases. And the benefits in terms of avoided near-term warming are huge,” he added.

He welcomed renewed impetus behind this issue with the global methane pledge announced by the European Union and the United States, and urged all countries and companies to step up their actions.

Additional benefits

The EU and US have agreed to cut methane emission by 30 per cent by 2030 ranging across all sectors generating the greenhouse gas. Methane abatement delivers additional important benefits, including improved public health and agricultural productivity, they acknowledged after brokering the agreement last month.

Actions to be pursued include improved manure management and conversion of agricultural wastes into biofuels through the use of anaerobic digesters.

Quick action was needed because eventual declines in demand for fossil fuels alone would not achieve rapid enough reductions of methane emissions to forestall the worst effects of climate change, Mr Birol said.

Many countries have well-established policy tools, including leak detection and repair requirements, technology standards and a ban on non-emergency flaring and venting. Some have included methane alongside other greenhouse gases in their national net-zero emission pledges.

These governments could also leverage their buying power to incentivise other countries to step up their measures against these emissions, given that more than 40 per cent of the oil and gas produced in countries without strong methane commitments is exported for consumption in countries that do have such commitments, the IEA suggests.

Dr Joeri Rogelj, who is based at the Grantham Institute in Imperial College London, said: "Eliminating methane emissions from fossil fuel operations is a no-brainer. They can strongly limit the rate of global warming over the next decades and are in many cases saving money."

The 75 per cent cut suggested by the IEA was well in line with pathways outlined by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to contain temperature rise to with 1.5 degrees.

“In those scenarios, methane emissions from the fossil fuel sector are reduced rapidly over the next decade. Cuts in agricultural methane emissions from rice, meat or dairy production are also important, but are harder to achieve,” he added.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times