Halting the vast release of methane is critical for climate, UN says

Both carbon dioxide and methane levels in the atmosphere reached record highs last year. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - A landmark United Nations (UN) report is expected to declare that reducing emissions of methane, the main component of natural gas, will need to play a far more vital role in warding off the worst effects of climate change.

The global methane assessment, compiled by an international team of scientists, reflects a growing recognition that the world needs to start reining in planet-warming emissions more rapidly, and that abating methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas, will be critical in the short term.

It follows new data that showed that both carbon dioxide and methane levels in the atmosphere reached record highs last year, even as the coronavirus pandemic brought much of the global economy to a halt.

The report also comes as a growing body of scientific evidence has shown that releases of methane from oil and gas production, one of the biggest sources of methane linked to human activity, may be larger than earlier estimates.

The report - a detailed summary of which was reviewed by The New York Times - singles out the fossil fuel industry as holding the greatest potential to cut its methane emissions at little or no cost.

The reason methane would be particularly valuable in the short-term fight against climate change: While methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas, it is also relatively short-lived, lasting just a decade or so in the atmosphere before breaking down.

That means cutting new methane emissions today could more quickly help the world meet its mid-century targets for fighting global warming.

By contrast, carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, lasts for hundreds of years in the atmosphere.

So while it remains critical to keep reducing carbon emissions, which make up the bulk of our greenhouse gas emissions, it would take until the second half of the century to see the climate effects.

Unlike carbon dioxide or most other air pollution, methane is not released by burning fossil fuels, but comes from leaks and other releases from oil and gas infrastructure, among other sources.

A growing body of research has shown that these oil and gas emissions are larger than previously thought.

Fixing those leaks in theory should pay for themselves by saving money, because capturing the gas means companies capture more product.

That potential makes plugging leaks from oil and gas infrastructure the most effective and cheapest way to slow emissions, the UN report says.

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