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Climate Change Reporting Guide - Chapter One
Climate Change Reporting Guide - Chapter One

Illustration: Marcelle Louw for GIJN


» Guide

Climate Change Reporting Guide: Methane – Introduction / TOC

Climate scientists have identified reducing methane emissions as the single fastest way to fight climate change. Emissions of methane, the second most abundant greenhouse gas — behind carbon dioxide — are rising rapidly and reaching new highs. Methane’s “global warming potential,” according to the United Nations Environment Programme, over the short-term is 84-86 times that of carbon dioxide. This makes journalism about methane sources increasingly urgent.

Investigative reporters can contribute, particularly by identifying specific sources of methane and also by holding companies and countries accountable for their pledges to reduce methane emissions.

More than 150 countries have signed the Global Methane Pledge committing to the goal of reducing global methane emissions by at least 30% from 2020 levels by 2030. They also pledged to move towards using the “best available methodologies” to quantify methane emissions. The pledge came during the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), held in Glasgow in late 2021.

In addition, many countries have made specific promises on what they will do regarding methane emissions. Companies, not only in the fossil fuels sector, also are addressing the issue. Investigating the levels of commitment and whether the goals will be achieved is a critical piece of the accountability equation.

This GIJN guide will address how journalists can cover methane emissions. We’ll describe:

  • How to find methane emitters, on the ground and from the sky.
  • Where to find emissions data.
  • Why methane measurement systems are flawed and need to be investigated.
  • How to question methane disclosures and commitments by companies and countries.

Table of Contents

Chapter One: Interrogating the Data

Data Sources | Global Research | Finding Government Data on Emissions | Methane Measurement and Monitoring Methods | Undercounting Methane Emissions

Chapter Two: Investigating Leaks and Emissions

Emergence of Satellite Detection | Using Infrared Cameras | Role of the Clean Air Task Force | Key NGO Players | Top Down Quantification | Open Source Map of Emissions | Other Possible Sources | New Resources | Alternative Monitoring Techniques | Challenges of Verification

Chapter Three: Investigating Corporations — and Broken Promises

Corporate Transparency: An Uneven Landscape | Unearthing Corporate Disclosures | Initiative to Improve Disclosure | Initiatives to Improve Disclosure | Investigative Questions | Leverage Investor Scrutiny | Verification Programs | Corporate Pledges Being Fulfilled — Or Not | Best Targets for Reporting Focus | Don’t Overlook Supply Chain Accountability | Many Industries to Investigate

Chapter Four: Holding Countries Accountable

Global Methane Pledge | Key Promises to Investigate | Identifying Methodological Challenges | Other Government Actors to Scrutinize

Chapter Five: New Sources Emerge for Tracking Methane Emissions by Satellites

Five new sources

Methane (CH4) is the second most abundant greenhouse gas behind carbon dioxide (CO2) and its emissions are rapidly growing. Methane traps more heat than CO2 and increases lower-atmospheric ozone (O3), which also adds to global warming.

Methane lasts in the atmosphere for only about a decade, a much shorter time than carbon dioxide, but, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), its “global warming potential” (GWP) over the short-term is 84-86 times that of CO2. Over a 100-year period, methane’s GWP is 28-34 times that of carbon dioxide.

“About 60% of global methane emissions are due to human activities,” UNEP summarized. From anthropomorphic sources, about 35% of emissions derive from the energy sector (mainly the oil and gas industries, but coal mines, too), about 40% comes from agricultural sources (livestock and some crops), and about 20% is from waste management sources (landfills and wastewater treatment facilities), according to the 2021 Global Methane Assessment by UNEP and the Climate & Clean Air Coalition (CCAC).

Studies say methane is responsible for almost a quarter of global warming. There has been “a faster growth” of methane emissions between 2014 and 2019 than in previous years, according to the August 2021 report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

“Strong, rapid and sustained reductions” in methane emissions would “limit the warming effect,” according to the IPCC report. Chapter 6 says, “Over time scales of 10 to 20 years, the global temperature response to a year’s worth of current emissions of SLCFs [short-lived climate forcers, of which methane is one] is at least as large as that due to a year’s worth of CO2 emissions.”

“Cutting methane is the strongest lever we have to slow climate change over the next 25 years and complements necessary efforts to reduce carbon dioxide,” according to Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP.

Impact of Emissions Reductions

Recognizing the value of immediate action has prompted recommendations of serious cuts in methane emissions. (As with many climate change targets, these may be stated in different terms, with varying baselines and time periods.)

The International Energy Agency (IEA) Executive Director Fatih Birol issued a statement in Nov. 2021, that if the world achieved “a 30% cut in methane emissions from human activity by 2030, it would have a similar impact on global warming as switching all world’s cars, trucks, ships, and planes — the entire global transport sector — over to net zero emissions technologies.”

UNEP Global Methane Assessment

Image: Screenshot

The Global Methane Assessment released in May 2021 by UNEP and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) says, “Cutting human-caused methane by 45% this decade would keep warming beneath a threshold agreed by world leaders.” An analysis published by Carbon Brief suggested that global cuts of “around 50% will likely be needed to realise the 0.2˚C saving.”

Health benefits also are predicted, largely because methane emissions are a key ingredient in smog. Lower emissions would prevent 260,000 premature deaths and 775,000 asthma-related hospital visits annually, as well as 25 million tons in crop losses, according to the Global Methane Assessment.

Controversial Target Levels

There is heated debate over target levels. Some see the 30% cut by 2030 contained in the Global Methane Pledge as too low.

“To put the world on a path consistent with the Paris Agreement 1.5˚C target, methane emissions must be reduced by 45% by 2030 relative to projected levels (~35%-40% relative to current emissions),” according to the CCAC. For more basic information, read CCAC’s Benefits and Costs of Mitigating Methane Emissions. Three UK scientists writing in Carbon Brief also questioned if a 30% reduction is enough.

Emissions reductions are realistic using currently available methods, according to the IEA, CCAC, and other sources.

IEA Report on 75% methane reduction

Image: Screenshot

An IEA report set out “practical measures” that could achieve a 75% cut in methane emissions from global fossil fuel operations by 2030. Another IEA publication on the same theme, Driving Down Methane Leaks from the Oil and Gas Industry, bills itself as “a regulatory roadmap and toolkit.” A similar article on cutting methane emissions 75% by 2030 includes this follow-up to a Net Zero by 2050 Roadmap, and a 2020 report on the burning of flammable waste gases, Flaring Emissions.

Also see Chapter 6 in the Emissions Gap Report 2021 from the UN Environmental Programme.

These cuts “can be achieved using solutions available today,” CCAC said. “The costs outweigh the benefits, more than 60% of available targeted measures have low mitigation costs, and roughly half of those have negative costs.”

Mitigation options are also available and could slow near-term warming by around 30%, according to a 2021 paper in Environmental Research Letters (which contains extensive background and citations). Other research, led by Ilissa Ocko of the Environmental Defense Fund, says that “strategies exist to cut global methane emissions from human activities in half within the next ten years and half of these strategies currently incur no net cost.”

But mitigation alone may not be adequate, many environmentalists argue. Instead, they are calling for a reduction in fossil fuel production. (See this 2021 statement by the US NGO Methane Action.)

The world’s overall progress toward cutting methane emissions will be followed by scientists, NGOs, and officials worldwide.

More Background Reading

For a more detailed introduction to the topic see: a primer from Bloomberg Green, and longer descriptions from World Resources Institute, CarbonBrief, Euronews, and Methane Action. Also see this explainer on agriculture’s impact. ​​And check out United in Science 2021, a multi-organization compilation of climate science information.

For an overview on solutions, read publications by the Clean Air Task Force (CATF) that address topics like comprehensive leak detection and repair (LDAR) programs, bans on routine venting and flaring, regulation on methane measurement, reporting and verification, tougher import standards from production regions outside the EU, and dealing with abandoned and unused oil and gas wells.

Chapter One focuses on interrogating the current data on methane emissions.

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