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U.S.-China host methane summit, but fossil fuel phaseout needed

The U.S. and China are holding an event at COP28 on methane emissions. While progress on methane is welcome, experts warn that the reluctance to curb fossil fuel production is making the methane crisis worse.

Expo City Dubai, where COP28 is taking place (Photo credit: Adobe Stock/diy13)

The U.S. and China will hold a summit on methane at the COP28 climate negotiations in Dubai on Dec. 2nd, hoping to build international momentum to slash emissions of the highly potent greenhouse gas.

Methane is 80 times more powerful than CO2 over a 20-year period, but because it is relatively short-lived, cutting methane emissions is one of the fastest and “most cost-effective” strategies to reduce global warming, according to the Global Methane Assessment, a landmark study on methane, published in 2021. The study found that reducing methane emissions by 45 percent by 2030 could shave off as much as 0.3 degrees Celsius of warming by the 2040s.

In 2021, at the COP26 summit in Glasgow, more than a hundred countries signed onto the Global Methane Pledge, a voluntary effort to collectively cut methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030.

But a summit to be held in Dubai at COP28 on Dec. 2nd by the U.S., China, and the UAE hopes to build on that effort. That comes after COP28 president Sultan Al-Jaber earlier this year said that the oil and gas industry should phase out methane emissions by 2030.

“If you look back at 2020, we were hardly even talking about methane. In that sense, I think we have made some pretty big steps forward — methane is now high on the agenda,” Drew Shindell, the Nicholas Professor of Earth Science at Duke University and Chair of the Global Methane Assessment, told Gas Outlook.

There are some signs of progress. In mid-November, the U.S. and China announced the restart of a bilateral working group between the world’s two largest emitters. The so-called “Sunnylands statement” called for an acceleration of renewable energy and collective action on methane.

China unveiled its national methane plan, which would improve monitoring of methane and curb flaring, but stopped short of issuing specific emissions reduction targets. The Biden administration is expected to unveil a series of regulations on methane emissions from the oil and gas sector, including rules at oil and gas wells, for leaky pipelines, and for oil and gas production on federal lands. Some of those are expected to be finalized in time for the December 2 summit, while others, including a fee on methane emissions from oil and gas producers, will take effect next year.

The European Union also announced a deal to impose limits on methane emissions from oil and gas imported into Europe beginning in 2030.

There are also some private sector and multilateral bank efforts. According to Reuters, the World Bank is expected to launch a new fund at COP28, with the backing of independent oil companies, for methane leak detection and clean-up in developing countries that are major sources of methane emissions, such as Turkmenistan.

Some experts say that growing global action on methane, including from the world’s two largest polluters, is encouraging.

“If you read these signals correctly, if you’re in the private sector, what you should see is that methane — therefore fossil gas — is going to be in the spotlight from now until the energy transition is finished,” Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development (IGSD) in Washington DC, told Gas Outlook. “Whether that’s 2045, 2050, 2060, 2070 – methane is going to be in the spotlight.”

He added that the long list of national-level efforts are coming together and could one day provide the foundation for a binding international accord on methane.

“It should be obvious that voluntary promises are not sufficient. That’s now become obvious. It’s time to move from voluntary to mandatory,” Zaelke said. “These things are happening. What I see is that there is now a powerful enough center of gravity on methane to pull these pieces together into a future global methane agreement.”

However, the hour is late. Global methane emissions have increased sharply in recent years, including increases from non-anthropogenic (not human-caused) sources, and atmospheric concentrations of methane are at record levels and rising. Methane is responsible for nearly a third of warming recorded to date, and emissions are showing no signs of slowing down. Recent research shows that the world is on track to breach climate targets and hit 2.9 degrees Celsius this century.

“We’re definitely going in the wrong direction,” Shindell said. “We’re at the stage where there’s a lot more talk in the right direction about the need to reduce methane. But there’s still a yawning gap between the talk and actual action.”

Fossil fuel phaseout needed

The oil and gas industry needs to rapidly eliminate methane emissions, but one of the risks of perceived progress exhibited at COP28 is that it provides political cover for the industry to continue to expand operations, experts say.

“I do feel that there is a legitimate concern that some of those pushing methane at this particular COP may be kind of trying to use the optics of acting on methane to obscure that they might not be willing to act so quickly on decarbonisation. And that would be a worry,” Shindell said. “We need to be doing both, not one or the other.”

Oil and gas companies, as well as their customers, such as utilities and industrial consumers, are increasingly trumpeting the concept of “certified gas,” or gas that comes equipped with a supposedly low methane emissions profile. Third-party certification schemes to promote the concept are proliferating.

But to a large extent, methane emissions are baked into the business model of oil and gas production. Flaring and venting are, in many cases, requisite operational practices. And leaks from pipelines, equipment, and even home appliances, are ubiquitous.

Even if methane emissions can be reduced, that still does not address the much larger task of cutting CO2 — i.e. the combustion of oil and gas.

For instance, ExxonMobil recently said that it would join the Oil and Gas Methane Partnership, a UN-backed standardized reporting framework to monitor the oil and industry’s methane emissions. It is a small but important step, and it no doubt provides a PR boost for the American supermajor. But crucially, Exxon has no plans to reduce its production now or at any point in the foreseeable future.

“We’re perpetuating the myth that we can fix fossil fuels rather than ditch them,” Nikki Reisch, director of the climate and energy programme at the Washington DC-based Center for International Environmental Law, told Gas Outlook. She said progress on methane is important, but a rapid phaseout of fossil fuels is essential. “They need to clean up and wind down.”

For this reason, while the U.S. and China are hosting a methane event at the COP28 in Dubai, the elephant in the room is the struggle over the broader concept of the fossil fuel “phaseout,” which has been a contested agenda item in the lead up to the international climate summit.

The United States, arguably more than anybody else, is sending mixed messages on methane. Crude oil output stands at 13.2 million barrels per day and gas production continues to break records year after year. The U.S. is the largest producer of oil and gas in the world, and recently became the largest LNG exporter as well. And, LNG exports are expected to more than double by 2027.

In other words, even as the Biden administration strives to push the international climate agenda on methane forward, it continues to preside over — and promote — blistering growth in fossil fuel production.

“The U.S. and other fossil fuel producers have to confront the reality that more oil and gas means more pollution and more climate destruction period,” Reisch said.

Even as COP28 gets underway, the Biden administration held an auction for oil and gas drilling rights in Wyoming, and will offer more acreage in New Mexico, Oklahoma, Nevada, and North Dakota in the coming days.

“The U.S. has failed to show climate leadership when it comes to confronting fossil fuels, and it puts it in in an awkward position to say the least when trying to spearhead climate commitments,” Reisch said.

“The best way to cut methane emissions from the energy sector is to cut oil and gas production. There isn’t a way to sugarcoat that reality,” she said. “They need to immediately halt the expansion of the industry that’s driving the climate crisis.”

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