UNEP report: Reduce methane emissions to meet climate goals and save lives

An urgent message about the dangers of methane comes in The Global Methane Assessment – a new report from the United Nations Environment Program and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition. Methane as ground-level ozone (smog) is a key culprit in air pollution, and is also 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a climate-changing greenhouse gas. In Canada, methane constituted 13% of GHG emissions in 2019, mainly from the oil and gas sector. The Global Methane Assessment documents the extent of the problem, but offers the prospect and a path for human-caused methane emissions to be reduced by up to 45 per cent this decade with known technologies. The result of the sectoral strategies recommended would be to avoid nearly 0.3°C of global warming by 2045,making it possible to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Those reductions would also prevent 260,000 premature deaths, 775,000 asthma-related hospital visits, 25 million tonnes of crop losses annually, and 73 billion hours of lost labour from extreme heat. For the oil and gas, the top strategies are: 1. Upstream and downstream leak detection and repair 2.Recovery and utilization of vented gas 3. Improved control of unintended fugitive emissions (including regular inspections and repair of sites); replacement of gas-powered devices or diesel engines with electric motors); capping unused wells. For coal, the report highlights: pre-mining degasification and recovery and oxidation of ventilation air methane; flooding abandoned coal mines.

The message is not new to Canadians. In 2017, Environmental Defence published Canada’s Methane Gas Problem: Why strong regulations can reduce pollution, protect health and save money. On January 1, 2020, new Canadian regulations came into force “in order to fulfill Canada’s commitment to reduce emissions of methane from the oil and gas sector by 40% to 45% below 2012 levels by 2025”. The December 2020 climate plan, Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy states that Canada is a member of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, and “Together with the International Energy Agency, the Coalition is targeting a 45% reduction in methane emissions by 2025 and 60-75% by 2030.” and promises “The Government will publicly report on the efficacy of the suite of federal actions to achieve the 2025 methane target in late 2021.” (page 38). In October 2020, the Minister of Natural Resources announced a $750-million Emissions Reduction Fund, providing loans to the oil and gas industry to promote investment in greener technologies to reduce methane and other GHG emissions.  But how to measure progress?  The problem of under-reported methane emissions is widely recognized, and was documented in 2020 in Canada by two reports summarized by the CBC here .

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) presents the industry side of the story on its webpages relating to innovation and technology. It states: “Industry is serious about meeting Canada’s commitment to reduce methane emissions from oil and natural gas operations by 45% from 2012 levels by 2025. An array of technologies and approaches are being developed and implemented, such as using solar panels to power pumps …. installing systems to capture vented gases, including methane, which can then be used as fuel, providing a supplemental power source for the facility. Within the industry, the Petroleum Technology Alliance of Canada (PTAC)  is “a neutral non-profit facilitator of collaborative research and development and technology development”, with current projects including the Advanced Methane DetectionAnalytics and Mitigation Project and the C-DER Centre for the Demonstration of Emissions Reductions.

Related reading: Bill McKibben’s column, “It’s Time to kick Gas”, comments on the UNEP report and reminds us that natural gas was once seen as a “bridge” fuel, but: “Now we understand that natural gas—which is primarily made of methane—leaks unburned at every stage from fracking to combustion, whether in a power plant or on top of your stove, in sufficient quantities to make it an enormous climate danger.”  He also cites the new Australian report, Kicking the Gas Habit: How Gas is Harming Our Health, which estimates that children living in houses with gas stoves is were 32 per cent more likely to develop asthma than those who didn’t – comparable to living with a smoker.  

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