Headline: Methane: A new hope? There is plenty of potential, but ambition is lacking

The EU's Methane Strategy aims high but falls short of expectations, especially when it comes to agriculture and waste.
The EU's Methane Strategy aims high but falls short of expectations, especially when it comes to agriculture and waste. shutterstock_Sergii Gnatiuk

There is a lot on the international climate policy agenda in 2021. Most importantly, countries will finally have to submit their enhanced Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement. The European Green Deal will contribute to this process and will hopefully lead the EU towards a low-carbon economy with new climate protection targets and many other measures. With pressure growing to further reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and fulfil its international commitments, the EU is now examining the options around methane.

Methane is an especially potent und often underestimated greenhouse gas. According to a new report by the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), a 45 % reduction in anthropogenic methane emissions could put the world back on track to achieving the 1.5°C target of the Paris Climate Agreement and avoid nearly 0.3°C of global warming by 2045. Under the European Green Deal, the EU published a strategy for reducing methane emissions in November 2020. The very fact that the EU has attempted to tackle this important and highly complex issue is a positive step. However, the strategy focuses on low hanging fruit such as steps to reduce leakage in the energy sector but lacks the courage to tackle more controversial issues such as the need for far-reaching changes in agriculture.

A complex challenge

The sources of methane emissions are diverse, ranging from livestock to energy generation and distribution systems, through to decaying waste matter in landfills. As with so many environmental challenges, a sophisticated, cross-sector approach is needed to achieve meaningful reductions. The impacts of methane emissions also equally varied. As a particularly potent greenhouse gas, methane contributes significantly to global warming; it is also a precursor to (tropospheric) ozone and a major cause of air pollution. Both global warming and air pollution have far-reaching impacts on human health, food security, and quality of life. The sources of methane emissions are often small or diffuse, and this makes detection and measurement much more difficult. Many experts see a particular challenge in improving the availability and quality of data on methane emissions. Together, these aspects make the regulation of methane emissions an extremely complex task.

These challenges are compounded by the difficulty of calculating the impact of methane on climate. Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), comparisons of greenhouse gases are performed on the basis of so-called "CO2 equivalents", representing the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide with the same global warming potential over one hundred years (GWP100). While measuring methane emissions in terms of their CO2 equivalence can be politically convenient, it obscures the fact that methane is at the same time both far more potent than CO2 and comparatively short-lived. Methane is about 28 times as potent as CO2 over a 100-year time horizon, and 84 times as potent over a period of just 20 years. These facts have two immediate implications: Firstly, measures to reduce methane emissions must be introduced with haste; and secondly, the UNFCCC's method of calculation does not do justice to the scientifically known impacts of methane.

Strategy aims high but falls short

The European Union’s Methane Strategy is certainly well meaning and targets those sectors responsible for the bulk of methane emissions: Agriculture (accounting for 53% of Europe’s methane emissions), Waste (26%) and Energy (19%). Considering this breakdown, one would expect that the EU Methane Strategy would prioritize efforts to reduce emissions in the agricultural sector. In fact, however, the strategy identifies the energy sector as a key focus, with numerous measures and some legislative proposals for the oil and gas industry.

At a second glance, this approach is hardly surprising: Compared to measures targeting agriculture, reductions in the oil and gas sector can be ‘easily’ achieved. The necessary measures can be implemented in the near-term and are relatively affordable. There are hopes that satellite technologies will remedy this situation. Following considerable investment in such solutions in the USA, the EU now also plans to use satellite-based detection and measurement technologies to trace leaks in the oil and gas industry. Since there is wide agreement on the need to reduce leakages, the EU is planning to put forward relevant legislative proposals as early as 2021. The planned EU Methane Observatory is another important component of the EU Methane Strategy. The issue is also gaining momentum at the international level: the new US administration is planning significant measures, while international forums, such as the Global Methane Alliance and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), have made methane emissions a focus of their activities. All this will add to the pressure on the EU to act.

Mitigation measures in agriculture are fundamentally more difficult, as they are usually more costly and – above all – more controversial among stakeholders and political actors. Numerous proposals aimed at reducing methane emissions in agriculture have been put on the table, ranging from the development of new forms of feed for livestock to improved manure storage or alternative irrigation methods for rice. While there is no doubt that these would benefit the climate, many of these technologies come with a price tag. And their uptake is further hampered by diverse cultural and social hurdles. Often, climate measures in the agricultural sector require changes in lifestyle, social norms and cultural practices or in traditional economic activities (e.g., lowering meat consumption and livestock inventory, changes in land use, etc.). Viewed from a global perspective, it is readily apparent that agriculture is not just a fundamental sector of the economy in many countries but is also closely linked to cultural identity. This complex situation makes climate change mitigation in agriculture a particularly sensitive political issue, and politicians often shy away from ambitious measures. Unfortunately, the EU Methane Strategy is no exception in this respect. Instead, the strategy concentrates on alternative livestock feeds and improving incentives to promote biogas. Beyond this, the strategy has little more to offer besides vague statements on lifestyle changes and fails to set any concrete targets for the sector.

Compared globally, significant emissions reductions have been achieved in the waste sector in Europe and this success has perhaps encouraged the EU to rest on its laurels. The Landfill Directive, adopted in 1999, obliges European landfill operators to either utilize landfill gas for energy generation or to burn it off (flaring). A regulation adopted in 2018 requires that biodegradable waste – a key source of landfill gas – must be collected and disposed of separately from other waste in the EU by 2024. Despite these Europe-wide regulations, there are significant differences among the Member States. For example, while Germany has achieved significant reductions with its landfill ban and mandatory waste treatment regime, other states and regions are moving at a slower pace. Here too, an opportunity was missed in the EU Methane Strategy, which instead favours vague proposals and refers to existing legislation.

Given the diverse sources and impacts of methane, the scientific complexity of the issue, and the hurdles faced by policymakers seeking to bring about change in various sectors, tackling the problem of methane emissions calls for the involvement of a whole host of actors. In winter 2020, the ClimAct team at the IASS organised a workshop on the new European Methane Strategy together with the European Commission in an attempt to tackle this challenge. Discussions at the workshop showed that despite the many challenges, there is also great potential. Improving communication and information sharing between the different ministries, the EU institutions, and stakeholders in the affected sectors can already help to lay the groundwork for change. An open dialogue, coupled with increased international attention, could put the issue on the agenda in the EU and in Germany and perhaps even raise ambitions when it comes to implementing the strategy.

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