Using the Paris Agreement to Strengthen Action on Methane

by Veera Pekkarinen. This article was first published in IISD/SDG Knowledge Hub on 13 January 2021.

Methane can be characterized as a “super-pollutant”. While it stays in the atmosphere only for 12 years, it is up to 86 times more powerful in warming the climate in the short term than the most discussed greenhouse gas (GHG), carbon dioxide . Methane is also a major precursor for tropospheric ozone, which is harmful for human health and plant growth. While some 40% of methane is natural, about 60% of it originates from anthropogenic sources, mostly in the energy, agriculture, and waste sectors.

Now, more than ever, global action on methane emissions is needed. In 2019, atmospheric methane concentrations hit a new record, reaching 260% of pre-industrial levels due to increased emissions from anthropogenic sources. According to the Emissions Gap Report 2019 by the UN Environment Programme, countries must increase their mitigation commitments in 2020 threefold to achieve the well below 2°C goal and more than fivefold to achieve the 1.5°C goal agreed under the Paris Agreement. The Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows that global GHG emission pathways that limit warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot (i.e. temporarily exceeding the temperature goal) ‘involve deep reductions of methane and black carbon, 35 per cent or more of both by 2050 relative to 2010’. Reducing methane emissions has important co-benefits: besides slowing down global warming, reducing methane would rapidly lead to improved air and water quality and increased crop yields.

On the bright side, global action on methane is rising

The incoming Biden Administration in the United States has committed to take aggressive action on methane and lead efforts to get major emitters to increase the ambition of their climate targets. The EU Commission presented its Methane Strategy in October, and various governments and non-state actors are working hard to help countries to reduce methane emissions, through initiatives such as the Climate and Clean Air CoalitionOil and Gas Methane PartnershipGlobal Methane InitiativeMethane Guiding PrinciplesGlobal Gas Flaring Reduction Partnership and Zero Routine Flaring by 2030.

The upcoming UN High-Level Dialogue on Energy in September 2021 will provide a further opportunity to consolidate these efforts, and launch commitments and partnerships to reduce methane emissions from the energy sector in support of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement.

Taking methane action through NDCs

Under the Paris Agreement, all countries have committed to updating their climate action plans – nationally determined contributions, or NDCs – at five-year intervals. Although the deadline for new or updated NDCs is at the end of this year, the postponement of the UN climate conference in Glasgow to November 2021 due to the COVID-19 crisis has given countries some leeway. This applies particularly to the United States, which, after formally withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on 4 November 2020, is set to rejoining in the first months of 2021. In this context, the US needs to also communicate  an NDC – with various options on the table on how to do this.

The first renewal of NDCs offers a great opportunity for strengthening global action on methane. In addition to cutting their carbon dioxide emissions, countries could increase their climate ambition by including explicit mitigation goals for methane in their NDCs, something that for instance Canada and several others  have already done. Adding such a specific methane target would help clarify countries’ economy-wide GHG mitigation targets. Importantly, it would allow countries to reduce methane emissions in accordance with country-specific circumstances, while linking such action explicitly to global efforts.

So what can countries do?

As a first step, all countries should include methane in their absolute economy-wide targets. Second, countries should add specific methane targets in the form of a separate economy-wide target, a sector-specific target, or targets based on implementing specific methane measures to their NDCs. As countries can include methane in their NDCs on a voluntary basis, no lengthy negotiations would be needed.

Specific methane targets would provide a useful input into the five-yearly global stocktake, the first of which is scheduled to conclude in 2023. This stocktake will assess the collective progress toward the Paris Agreement’s long-term goals and guide parties when updating their NDCs. By providing a better view of methane levels and its mitigation needs, global stocktake would help giving methane the attention it demands.

We have the means to reduce methane emissions right now. Various cost-effective methane mitigation technologies and policies are readily available. We can take these practices and put them widely in use by tying them directly to countries’ NDCs. There are no excuses for postponing action, especially in the light of the multiple co-benefits of reducing methane.

This article is authored by Veera Pekkarinen. She is a PhD Candidate in international environmental law at the University of Eastern Finland (UEF) Law School Centre for Climate Change, Energy and Environmental Law (CCEEL). It is based on the article: Going beyond CO2: Strengthening action on global methane emissions under the UN climate regime.