A methane flaring pit is seen in the Bakken Oil Field on October 18, 2011.

A methane flaring pit is seen in the Bakken Oil Field on October 18, 2011.

(Photo: Orjan F. Ellingvag/Corbis via Getty Images)

Defusing 'Methane Bombs' Key to Averting Climate Catastrophe: Experts

"The current rise in methane looks very scary indeed," said one researcher. "So removing the super-emitters is a no-brainer to slow the rise—you get a lot of bang for your buck."

More than 1,000 "super-emitter" incidents—human-caused methane leaks of at least one tonne per hour—were detected worldwide last year, mostly at oil and gas facilities, and policymakers must prioritize cutting this planet-heating pollution to avoid "triggering catastrophic climate tipping points."

That's according to Monday reporting from The Guardian, which also warned of the risks posed by 112 global "methane bombs," which are defined as "fossil fuel extraction sites where gas leaks alone from future production would release levels of methane equivalent to 30 years of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions."

Emissions and atmospheric concentrations of methane—a potent gas that traps roughly 80 times more heat than carbon dioxide (CO2) over a 20-year period—have soared at an alarming rate in recent years and are responsible for an estimated 30% of global warming today. This surge jeopardizes the goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels—beyond which impacts of the climate emergency will grow increasingly dire, especially for the world's poor who have done the least to cause the deadly crisis.

But at the same time, swiftly slashing methane pollution represents one of humanity's best opportunities for lifesaving climate action. Reducing methane emissions by 45% by 2030 would prevent 0.3°C of heating by the 2040s, according to the United Nations Environment Program, which says achieving this is entirely possible with enough political will.

"The current rise in methane looks very scary indeed," earth scientist Euan Nisbet of Royal Holloway, University of London, told The Guardian. "Methane acceleration is perhaps the largest factor challenging our Paris agreement goals. So removing the super-emitters is a no-brainer to slow the rise—you get a lot of bang for your buck."

According to The Guardian:

The methane super-emitter sites were detected by analysis of satellite data [conducted by the company Kayrros], with the U.S., Russia, and Turkmenistan responsible for the largest number from fossil fuel facilities. The biggest event was a leak of 427 tonnes an hour in August, near Turkmenistan's Caspian coast and a major pipeline. That single leak was equivalent to the rate of emissions from 67 million cars, or the hourly national emissions of France.

Future methane emissions from fossil fuel sites—the methane bombs—are also forecast to be huge, threatening the entire global "carbon budget" limit required to keep heating below 1.5°C. More than half of these fields are already in production, including the three biggest methane bombs, which are all in North America.

The fossil fuel industry is responsible for about 40% of annual anthropogenic methane emissions, compared with roughly 40% from industrial agriculture and another 20% from rotting waste in landfills.

But "tackling leaks from fossil fuel sites is the fastest and cheapest way to slash methane emissions," The Guardian reported. "Some leaks are deliberate, venting the unwanted gas released from underground while drilling for oil into the air, and some are accidental, from badly maintained or poorly regulated equipment."

Lena Höglund-Isaksson from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria told the newspaper that even a temporary breach of the 1.5°C threshold—something scientists warn has a 50% chance of happening by 2026, especially with a looming El Niño pattern—could "trigger irreversible effects" from multiple tipping points.

"Methane is the worst thing in the struggle to hold back the [climate] domino pieces because it's pushing them over very quickly," added Kjell Kühne of Leeds University and the Leave it in the Ground Initiative. "Having so many methane bombs out there is really worrisome."

Last May, Kühne and other researchers sounded the alarm about more than 400 "carbon bombs," or massive fossil fuel projects that threaten to unleash nearly 1.2 trillion tonnes of CO2 emissions and doom efforts to preserve a livable planet.

Building on that analysis, the same team of researchers has identified dozens of "methane bombs."

These are fossil gas fields "where leakage alone from the full exploitation of the resources would result in emissions equivalent to at least a billion tonnes of CO2," The Guardian explained Monday. "Gas fields also produce methane, which is sold to customers and burned, pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. When these emissions are combined with the leaked methane, the list of bombs that would result in global heating equivalent to 1 billion tonnes of CO2 swells to 112."

"In the scientists' central estimate, the total emissions from these 112 methane bombs would be equivalent to 463 billion tonnes of CO2—more than a decade of current global emissions from all fossil fuels," the newspaper noted. "The methane bomb emissions are also significantly higher than the emissions limit of 380 billion tonnes of CO2 from all sources needed to keep global heating below 1.5°C, according to the Global Carbon Budget's recent estimate."

Kühne said that he is "amazed how long this list is, and how many of these giant projects are still being pushed forward."

"The impacts of methane are front-loaded—they happen very soon after its emission. Last year's gas leaks are killing people this year," he warned. "At the same time, methane is a huge opportunity to reduce global heating. That is the unrealized potential in defusing methane bombs, to stop runaway climate change. I think it might be the last opportunity because we're already seeing some of these tipping elements tip over. We're in a climate emergency and [stopping fossil fuel methane leaks] is top of the list."

The Global Methane Pledge, an initiative launched at COP26 and now endorsed by 150 countries, aims to slash global methane emissions by at least 30% below 2020 levels by 2030.

As part of the United States' commitment to that pledge, the Biden administration in November unveiled an updated action plan for reducing national methane emissions. While welcoming the move, climate justice campaigners stressed that much more must be done.

"The EPA has taken an important step forward by issuing a robust standard for methane emissions from oil and gas operations, including a 'super-emitter program' aimed at the most egregious polluters," Rachel Cleetus, policy director and lead economist for the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said at the time. "Ultimately, to meet global climate goals, we need to go well beyond this effort and actually sharply taper down fossil fuels."

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