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Climate activists demonstrate outside the gates of the Mossmorran petrochemical refinery near Cowdenbeath, Scotland on August 1, 2021. (Photo: Jane Barlow/PA Images via Getty Images)

Climate activists demonstrate outside the gates of the Mossmorran petrochemical refinery near Cowdenbeath, Scotland on August 1, 2021. (Photo: Jane Barlow/PA Images via Getty Images)

IPCC to Say Drastic Methane Cuts Necessary to Avert Climate Hell

"Cutting methane is the biggest opportunity to slow warming between now and 2040," says one leading scientist. "We need to face this emergency."

Kenny Stancil

Slashing carbon dioxide emissions will not be sufficient to avert climate disaster unless the international community also acts boldly to stop releasing methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that is playing an increasingly significant role in intensifying planetary heating and extreme weather.

"Cutting methane gives us time."
—Durwood Zaelke, Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will issue that warning on Monday in the first of three reports that together will constitute the United Nations' sixth climate assessment since 1990, The Guardian reported Friday. According to the British newspaper, part one of the IPCC's forthcoming report, which covers physical science, "will show in detail how close the world is to irreversible change."

Although carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere far longer, methane is up to 87 times more potent over a 20-year period, making it a key driver of global warming in the near term. Despite the pandemic-driven shutdowns in 2020, emissions of both heat-trapping gases reached record highs last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found.

Key sources of methane pollution include industrialized animal farming, landfills, and fossil fuel extraction and leaks. Research published last year showed that coal mining, oil drilling, and hydraulic fracturing for so-called "natural" gas may be emitting up to 40% more methane than previously thought. One climate scientist said that while the study was alarming, it "shows us where we can act on climate change" right away.

In May, the U.N. Environment Programme released a report highlighting the "absolutely critical" necessity of quickly cutting global methane emissions, which researchers said "is one of the most cost-effective strategies to rapidly reduce the rate of warming and contribute significantly to global efforts to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C."

The Guardian noted that the IPCC will reiterate that message in its upcoming report:

Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development and a lead reviewer for the IPCC, said methane reductions were probably the only way of staving off temperature rises of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, beyond which extreme weather will increase and "tipping points" could be reached. "Cutting methane is the biggest opportunity to slow warming between now and 2040," he said. "We need to face this emergency."

Warnings about the need for immediate reductions in methane emissions came just one day after a new study sounded the alarm about the potential collapse of a crucial Atlantic Ocean current system, a tipping point that would destabilize Earth's climate, unleashing devastating effects on ecosystems and communities worldwide.

"Climate change is like a marathon," said Zaelke. "We need to stay in the race. Cutting carbon dioxide will not lead to cooling in the next 10 years, and beyond that our ability to tackle climate change will be so severely compromised that we will not be able to run on. Cutting methane gives us time."

From October 31 to November 12, the United Kingdom will host the 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), during which heads of governments will meet for the first time since 2019 to discuss national pledges to slash greenhouse gas pollution.

Existing emissions reduction targets are inadequate to prevent catastrophic levels of warming in the 21st century, according to the U.N. 

"The reality is that we are not on track to achieve the Paris Agreement goals of limiting climate change to 1.5°C by the end of the century," Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the U.N.'s Framework Convention on Climate Change, said last week in a statement. "In fact, we're on the opposite track, heading for more than a 3°C rise."

The authors of the IPCC's comprehensive, three-part assessment—the second part, on impacts, and the third part, on potential solutions, are expected to be released early next year—synthesized all climate research published before February 2021, and they hope that governments will utilize the documents when creating plans for climate action.

Zaelke said Friday that policymakers must take note of the IPCC's findings on methane prior to the U.N.'s upcoming climate talks in Glasgow, which are less than 100 days away. "We need to see at COP26 a recognition of this problem, that we need to do something on this," he told The Guardian.

Zaelke predicted that "we will have to have a global methane agreement," and he encouraged governments to develop a new international climate treaty that would be designed specifically to reduce methane emissions.


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