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A gas flare is seen at an oil well site on July 26, 2013 outside Williston, North Dakota. (Photo: Andrew Burton via Getty Images)

A gas flare is seen at an oil well site on July 26, 2013 outside Williston, North Dakota. (Photo: Andrew Burton via Getty Images)

'Pivotal Moment': IEA Says Cutting Methane From Fossil Fuels 75% by 2030 'Essential'

"We need substantial, economy-wide methane reductions this decade for us to stand a chance of avoiding the worst climate tipping points."

Jessica Corbett

Building on a "bombshell" release from earlier this year, the International Energy Agency on Thursday published a report on pathways to cut planet-heating methane emissions from fossil fuels 75% by 2030, which the IEA calls "essential" to combating the climate emergency.

"It is inexcusable that massive amounts of methane continue to be allowed to just seep into the air from fossil fuel operations."

When the Paris-based global energy watchdog in May released its Net-Zero by 2050 roadmap that signaled the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground, Greenpeace International executive director Jennifer Morgan declared, "Finally the IEA is starting to get it."

While discussions on greenhouse gas emissions often center on carbon dioxide, the focus of the new report—Curtailing Methane Emissions From Fossil Fuel Operations: Pathways to a 75% cut by 2030—is up to 87 times more potent than CO2 over a 20-year period.

Methane, which is more potent than CO2 but also disappears more quickly, "has contributed to around 30% of the global rise in temperatures to date," the report says, "and curbing these emissions is the most effective means available for limiting global warming in the near term."

The report continues:

Emissions from fossil fuel operations present a major opportunity in this respect, since the pathways to reduction are both clear and cost-effective. Fossil fuel operations generated close to 120 [million tonnes] of methane in 2020—nearly one-third of all methane emissions from human activity. The scope for reducing these emissions is enormous. This is particularly true in the oil and gas sector, where it is possible to avoid more than 70% of current emissions with existing technology, and where around 45% could be avoided at no net cost.

Reducing fossil fuel demand alone will not do the job quickly or effectively enough, which means early and concerted abatement efforts by governments and industry are essential. Under the IEA's Net-Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario, methane emissions from fossil fuel operations would need to fall by around 75% between 2020 and 2030. Only about one-third of this decrease is the result of reduced consumption of fossil fuels, principally coal. Most of the decline comes from the rapid deployment of measures and technologies to eliminate avoidable methane emissions by 2030.

Offering "practical steps that can be taken by countries and companies to secure a 75% reduction," the report calls on both governments and businesses to take urgent action.

While the IEA highlighted the necessity of cutting methane, some climate campaigners reiterated the broader need for a "managed decline in oil and gas production, starting now." As Oil Change International's David Tong put it: "That needs to be the top focus, even as we address methane."

IEA executive director Fatih Birol, in a statement about the new report, acknowledged recent efforts to address methane pollution.

"At a time when we are constantly being reminded of the damaging effects of climate change," Birol said, "it is inexcusable that massive amounts of methane continue to be allowed to just seep into the air from fossil fuel operations."

"These emissions are avoidable, the solutions are proven and even profitable in many cases. And the benefits in terms of avoided near-term warming are huge," he added. "I welcome the renewed impetus behind this issue with the Global Methane Pledge, announced by the European Union and the United States, and urge all countries and companies to step up their actions."

Unveiled last month during an event hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden, the pledge aims to reduce all methane emissions worldwide at least 30% by 2030. Though climate campaigners charge that it doesn't go far enough, the agency's statement noted Thursday that "if the world achieves the 75% cut in methane from fossil fuel operations as described in the new IEA report, this would lower total human-caused methane emissions by around 25%, and so would go a long way to achieving the aim of the Global Methane Pledge."

Jonathan Banks, Clean Air Task Force's international director for super pollutants, said that the IEA's report "makes clear that making substantial cuts to methane emissions from the fossil fuel sector is the lowest hanging fruit in global climate policy."

"Multiple sectors are contributing to the global methane crisis, and there are opportunities to reduce methane emissions from each of them," he added, "but it's clear from this report that cutting emissions from the oil, gas, and coal sectors is a critical opportunity to do it at pace and scale. We need substantial, economy-wide methane reductions this decade for us to stand a chance of avoiding the worst climate tipping points."

The report comes just ahead of COP 26, the United Nations summit set to kick off in Scotland at the end of the month. In anticipation of that and new methane policies from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Earthworks policy director Lauren Pagel recently proposed a more ambitious goal, which she repeated in a statement Thursday.

"This is a pivotal moment," Pagel said. "The Biden administration can either be a leader on methane pollution or cave to industry and risk climate catastrophe. The EPA has the authority under the Clean Air Act to cut oil and gas methane pollution by 65% by 2025. Their new rules must use that full authority."

"While cutting methane is a vital start, it is not enough," she added. "The U.S. must begin a managed decline of fossil fuels that centers industry workers and frontline communities who are most exposed to the health and climate impacts of fossil fuels."

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