In recent years, there has been increasing focus on the role of methane as a driver of climate change. Traditionally, conversations on global warming had much to do with energy, industry and transport. However, there is now evidence that a quarter of the global emissions are products of agriculture and land-use changes. According to the IPCC, more than 40 per cent of methane emissions come from farms or are an outcome of peatland destruction. The pledge by more than 80 nations, helped by the US and EU, to cut emissions of this GHG (greenhouse gas) by 30 per cent is, therefore, an important step in global warming mitigation efforts. But the announcement should be read with a number of caveats. Such pledges are commonplace at UNFCCC meets. Multiple similar promises to arrest deforestation, for instance, await concrete action — on Tuesday, another group of nations vowed to stop the destruction of forests. More importantly, its links with agriculture make methane a sensitive topic amongst developing countries. It’s not surprising, therefore, that India, China and Russia are amongst the nations that did not lend their voice to the pledge.
As a global warming agent, methane is 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in its first 20 years in the atmosphere. The latter, however, stays in the atmosphere for much longer. Cutting methane emissions, therefore, is seen as a potent way of mitigating global warming in the near term. While much of the contentious aspects of curbing emissions of this GHG pertain to agriculture, the oil and gas industry — especially natural gas, whose popularity as a relatively cleaner fossil fuel has led to a 50 per cent increase in its use in the past 10 years — is the second-highest emitter of this gas. Persuading people to change their dietary or farming practices can be a tricky proposition but slashing methane emissions from other sectors can be a relatively straightforward matter — even profitable for the industry in the long run. The International Energy Agency estimates that the fuel industry can achieve a 75 per cent reduction in methane emissions using existing technologies. In June, the US Congress voted to reinstate the Obama-era rules to reduce methane emissions from the US energy sector, rolling back one of the most climate-regressive measures of the Trump administration. The Biden administration has also proposed stricter regulations to reduce methane leaks from oil and gas industry operations.
In his speech at Glasgow, President Biden avoided any reference to India, China and Russia but he did exhort more countries to sign the pledge. If the history of climate diplomacy is any indicator, it’s only time when outliers to the methane compact would face pressure to check methane emissions — India is amongst the top three emitters of this gas. It’s heartening, therefore, that agriculture research institutes in the country have started work on farmer-friendly technologies to reduce emissions from the livestock sector. Conversations have also begun on ways to change paddy cultivation practices to make them climate-friendly. These technologies must reach the farmers at the earliest.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on November 4, 2021 under the title ‘Methane promise’.