This column is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration cofounded by Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
This week at COP26, more than 70 countries, led by the European Union and the United States, formally announced their commitment to the Global Methane Pledge: a promise to reduce methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030. Some of the world’s largest methane emitters—China, Russia, Australia—did not sign on, and the G20 failed to commit to the pledge this week. But activists say the global pledge is important nonetheless.
“The power in this is that for the first time you’re going to have leaders of countries standing up saying, ‘We’re committing to reducing methane emissions in the very near term,’” said Jonathan Banks, international director of the Clean Air Task Force. Banks added that the global pledge will unlock funding from the nonprofit sector, and in fact philanthropies have already vowed to give $200 million to governments to help countries reduce their methane emissions.
Sharon Wilson, senior field advocate and optical imaging specialist for EarthWorks, is less optimistic, but still positive about the pledge. “I do think the pledge is significant, because it draws global attention to a global problem,” she told me. But Wilson stresses that “a pledge is just words on paper.” Delivering actual methane reductions will be far trickier.
Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, with more than 80 times the warming power of CO2. It’s also far more short-lived, which means tackling it quickly could delay warming, ideally long enough to get a handle on CO2 emissions. Methane is responsible for about 25 percent of warming in the past decade. A recent UN report found that if human-caused methane emissions were cut by 45 percent by 2030, half a degree (0.3 degrees Celsius) of warming could be prevented by mid-century. The Global Methane Assessment, released in May 2021, found that reducing methane emissions by 45 percent in this decade could keep global warming to 1.5 degrees by the end of the century, the goal of the Paris Agreement. That math also includes animal agriculture, which accounts for 32 percent of human-caused methane emissions. The Global Methane Pledge covers all sectors, but attention has primarily been focused on the fossil fuel industry. United Nations Environment Program chief Inger Andresen was quick to point out that methane reductions are not a “get out of jail free” card on climate.
It won’t be easy to ensure that the Global Methane Pledge is more than just words on paper. First, there’s the lack of specific requirements or policies; and, like every other pledge out of the COP in recent decades, the pledge lacks any sort of enforcement mechanism. And then there’s the fact that methane is notoriously underreported. Without an accurate baseline, how can we measure progress toward that 30 percent reduction goal?
The oil and gas industry has been making similar pledges for years. And it claims to be following through on its promises to reduce methane emissions. To hear American Petroleum Institute President Mike Sommers speak at last week’s climate disinformation hearing in the US House of Representatives, you would have thought the API spends most of its time tackling methane emissions instead of lobbying against regulation. But the fact is that the industry self-reports methane emissions, and it does so based on a formula that enables underreporting on a massive scale.
It’s complicated, but in broad strokes: When a company buys equipment from a manufacturer, it comes with an emissions factor. And that’s where the problem begins, because emissions factors are really just estimates of the volume of pollutants a piece of equipment might release—and under the best possible conditions, when it is being perfectly maintained. Here’s the EPA describing how these estimates are made: “In most cases, these factors are simply averages of all available data of acceptable quality, and are generally assumed to be representative of long-term averages.” That’s not very precise! Oil and gas companies do not observe the equipment in the field. They simply take the manufacturer’s emissions factor and multiply it by the number of machines they’ve got. So you could have a piece of equipment that’s faulty, or that’s been damaged by weather, or that’s been poorly maintained, that’s just ripping methane into the air, but it would still be reported as emitting just what the manufacturer speculated it would under the best possible circumstances. In other words, actual emissions are not being measured or observed, let alone reported. “They get the factor from the equipment manufacturer, and they want their number to be favorable,” Wilson said. “So it starts with a favorable number, and it just gets more favorable down the line.”
A recent study from the Environmental Defense Fund found that actual methane emissions in the United States are 60 percent higher than what the Environmental Protection Agency is reporting based on the industry’s self-reported numbers. Earthworks puts that number at closer to 100 percent. Still, at least there’s some reporting happening in the fossil fuel sector. Ranchers are not required to report their operations’ methane emissions. On the one hand, we might have more accurate numbers on that sector, because the data we have has been gathered by researchers, not self-reported. On the other, it’s hard to manage what you don’t even track. Despite the GOP talking point that the climate-conscious are trying to take away America’s hamburgers, there’s been very little attention at the policy level on agricultural emissions. Again, the Global Methane Pledge is sector-agnostic. And some big ranching countries have signed on—most notably, Brazil. But the United States seems to be largely focused on the fossil fuel industry, where it’s assumed that there are relatively easy and straightforward ways to curb methane—at least enough to deliver a 30 percent reduction this decade, according to the Global Methane Assessment.
Banks said he thinks emergent satellite technology will help solve the problem of methane emissions tracking, and he told me that the problem of bad data on methane is improving. So far, the United States has not joined the International Methane Emissions Observatory (IMEO), a UN Environment Program project, which was launched at Sunday’s G20 meeting in Rome and aims to offer “the world’s most comprehensive, real-time methane pollution data.” The effort leans heavily on the Oil and Gas Methane Partnership 2.0, an international framework for methane reporting that only two American companies have signed on to—neither of them an oil major. The OGMP 2.0 requires actual measurement of methane emissions across the fossil fuel supply chain, so not just upstream production but also transportation, processing, and refining—all of which come with major emissions that are often left out of the United States’ self-reporting approach. While ExxonMobil and Chevron have publicly supported the Global Methane Pledge, and made various commitments to curbing their methane emissions, neither has embraced the OGMP 2.0.
“Without IMEO the [Global Methane] pledge risks being just a pledge,” IMEO acting head Manfredi Caltagirone told the Financial Times this week, noting that the United States could have led by example and urged American companies to join the OGMP 2.0 as well. Banks said signing on to the IMEO is “likely to be mentioned in the pledge,” which itself would go a long way toward addressing the reporting issue.
Beyond reporting and emissions data, the key to making the pledge more than an empty promise in the United States will come down to the states, according to both Wilson and Banks. The last remaining regulation on methane in President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill was just axed thanks in large part to Senator Joe Manchin. But Banks said that no matter what’s happening at the federal level, state policy can confront the methane threat. “Even during the Trump years, we made progress,” he said. “But I also think the tide has turned on this issue. I mean, there are still some gas companies fighting things, but the larger companies, they see the writing on the wall.”
Wilson has less faith in the corporations. “They’ve been making promises on methane and breaking them for a decade. I’m ready to break up with oil and gas. They don’t keep their promises,” she said. “There are voluntary measures that are recommended by the API that would save worker’s lives, and they won’t do ’em!”
For Wilson, who operates in Texas, state policy is only as good as the enforcement of it, which she says is all but nonexistent in her part of the country. “The oil and gas industry has never been adequately regulated,” she said. “We have been calling for the EPA to step in and enforce the Clean Air Act. They can do that. But with what army? It’s gonna take a small army for each state to adequately do this.”
Wilson would like to see an end to all new permits, along with proper regulation of existing oil and gas infrastructure. While the industry mostly uses the word “leak” regarding methane, implying some sort of accident, Wilson has documented time and again that the intentional release of methane is far more common. That happens when gas operations flare—i.e., burn off—gas that it does not make business sense to sell or that is “sour,” meaning that it contains hydrogen sulfide and is toxic. Companies will also vent methane—release the gas directly into the atmosphere, after a well is fracked or as a normal part of maintenance. These are not accidental releases; they’re part of the standard process of drilling for, refining, and distributing gas. “We’ll never bring levels down if the industry just keeps expanding,” she said. “The industry cannot reliably stop methane emissions—all of their available tech is not reliable. We need to stop new permits.”
Still, she thinks the Global Methane Pledge is a step in the right direction. “I think the Global Methane Pledge could be a way to bring the methane problem to the forefront, to really raise awareness about methane,” she said. “It’s the-low hanging fruit on climate. If we could quickly get on top of that, it could really buy us time.”