Kicking the can on methane

There is a real risk that focusing on methane will mean we take our foot off the accelerator of CO2 reductions, where we've traditionally had a pretty poor record, write Professor Dave Frame and Dr Adrian Macey.

group of cows with blue ear tags

As 20,000 people get ready to converge on Glasgow for the next United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), there has been a flurry of reports and media coverage suggesting urgent action to reduce methane emissions is the best thing we can do for the climate right now.

A recent joint United States-European Union pledge on methane, which other countries are being encouraged to join, aims at a 30 percent reduction in methane by 2030. The argument is that because methane is very potent in the short term, reducing it now will give us a big hit on warming, or that it somehow buys time for reducing carbon dioxide (CO2).

If it’s not in competition with action on longer-lived gases, it’s a good idea to reduce methane. It’s a very bad idea to increase it because of its strong short-term effects on temperature.

However, CO2 dominates not only the overall level of warming but also the speed of warming. Early methane reductions can at best shave a few tenths of a degree off peak warming and slow the rate of warming a little.

There is a real risk that focusing on methane will mean we take our foot of the accelerator of CO2 reductions, which is where New Zealand has a pretty poor record.

One reason for the attention being given to short-lived gases may be that dealing with steep CO2 reductions is just too hard. This is a bit like a golfer with a weak long game concentrating solely on their short game in the hope of shaving a few points off their handicap, rather than deal with the main problem.

In most of the developed world, methane emissions result from fossil sources. Plugging leaky gas pipes is very cheap; the International Energy Agency estimates that fossil methane from the oil and gas sector can be reduced by 75 percent without any new technology. So how does agriculture fit in? That’s more equivocal.

While the White House is “promulgating new regulations to curtail methane emissions from the oil and gas industry” and committing to “implement stronger pollution standards for landfills” and “continuing to take steps that will reduce methane leakage from pipelines and related facilities”, it is “working to significantly expand the voluntary adoption of climate-smart agriculture practices that will reduce methane emissions from key agriculture sources”.

Spot the difference? “New regulations” for the fossil and waste sectors, but just an expansion of “voluntary adoption” practices for agriculture.

The EU’s Methane Strategy Roadmap says:

“Methane emissions in agriculture cannot be reduced to zero and are more challenging to monitor, verify and report accurately, requiring clear methodologies to capture any mitigation efforts correctly. To have more accurate reporting, and in particular to take account of the mitigation actions applied by individual farms, member states need more detailed data on the sources of emissions.”

That sound you can hear is a can being kicked down the road.

The EU strategy to reduce methane contains no concrete commitment to either price agricultural methane or to reduce it to a specific level below current levels.

How does that compare with where New Zealand is heading on agricultural methane?

Greenpeace and Oxfam both find the Zero Carbon Act and the Climate Change Commission’s recommendations seriously inadequate and say farmers are getting a free ride.

In spite of the criticism, New Zealand is alone in having a clear and explicit target for emissions reductions from agricultural methane.

Also unique is our programme of work to regulate and price agricultural emissions, under which it is expected that, by 2025, farmers will be “calculating their net greenhouse gas emissions and being incentivised to take action on climate change through an appropriate pricing mechanism for emissions”.

Finally, our split gas target makes it clear how our agriculture sector and its emissions fit into the 1.5°C-2°C temperature goal of the Paris Agreement – something that does not happen when countries mix their long-lived and short-lived emissions in a single target that doesn’t identify the actual effect on temperature.

If you want to know the temperature consequences of your emissions, you should (as New Zealand alone does) make the distinction between things that persist (long-lived gases) and things that decay (short-lived gases, aerosols, and particulate species like black carbon).

As Box 7.3 of the most recent IPCC report observed:

“Clear and transparent representation of the global warming implications of future emission pathways including Nationally Determined Contributions could be achieved either by their detailing pathways for multiple gases or by detailing a pathway of cumulative carbon dioxide-equivalent emission approach aggregated across greenhouse gases evaluated by either GWP* or CGTP metric approaches.”

Not only are we unique in having an emissions reduction target for agricultural methane, we also have a work programme under way to bring agricultural methane into policy.

We have a target that allows us to work out how much warming we will cause, and this implies that if we achieve the mid range of our current target we will stop our warming in the 2030s, earlier than the United Kingdom, the EU and US. Targets aside, we are playing a leading role both at home and abroad in research on lower methane technologies.

The questions for those, here and abroad, who are eager to portray New Zealand as somehow being deficient or behind the times in terms of our plan for agricultural methane are: (1) Compared to whom? (2) Who has a price on agricultural methane? (3) Who even has a clear emissions reduction target for the sector? (4) How much earlier than us will they finish their warming?

As it happens, we can show you the answers. They are (1) No one. (2) No one. (3) Still no one. (4) Around 10 to 15 years later, probably.

Instead of promising even more action in the future – announcing “ambitious” targets is the easy bit – we should concentrate on delivering more action now, and especially in those areas where we’ve been far too slow, like transport.

The country’s ability to decarbonise successfully depends on a group of policies that are effective, stable over time, and politically sustainable to the median voter.

New Zealand has a distinctive emissions portfolio, a distinctive climate target, and has progressed further down the track of dealing with agricultural methane emissions than anyone else.

We should hold our nerve, and keep going. We should communicate better to other countries about what we are doing, why we are doing it, and how it makes for good climate policy.

Dave Frame is Professor of Climate Change and Director of the New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute at Te Herenga Waka–Victoria University of Wellington.

Dr Adrian Macey is an adjunct professor of the New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute at Te Herenga Waka–Victoria University of Wellington and a fellow at the Institut d'études avancées de Nantes, France.

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