The European Commission released last week their strategy to reduce EU methane emissions, as a part of a wider European Green Deal and an EU goal to reach climate neutrality by 2050. Below are some key points from the strategy.
What’s the problem with methane?
Methane is a greenhouse gas which is nearly 90 times more potent than CO2 during its first 20 years in the atmosphere. Given the urgency of the climate crisis, the next 20 years will be a crucial period in which to reduce emissions. Reducing methane emissions, in addition to carbon emissions, will be a vital part of all climate strategies. (Read more about the environmental implications of methane here). Methane emissions are also connected to health problems and poor air quality. Although Europe has succeeded in slightly reducing their methane emissions over the last few years, a recent private analysis found that the number of global methane hotspots increased by 32% in 2020, despite the widespread economic decline and reduced demand for fossil fuels. The steep global increase in methane emissions is believed to be largely a result of faulty maintenance on gas infrastructure and pipelines.
How is the EU addressing methane emissions?
The EU methane strategy focuses predominantly on emissions from agriculture, waste, and energy. The EU is responsible for only 5% of global methane emissions, however this number does not account for methane emissions associated with the large amount of fossil gas that the EU imports. Since most methane is emitted during the extraction and transport of gas (which often happens outside of the EU) it is not factored into the EU’s emissions calculations. The EU strategy prioritises global voluntary initiatives and cooperation, as well as business-led initiatives, although it states that EU-level legislation will also be proposed in 2021.
What does this mean for the gas sector?
The oil and gas sectors are recognised as some of the easiest sectors in which to take quick action to reduce methane emissions. The International Energy Agency has stated that the oil and gas industry could reduce their methane emissions by 75% using technology that already exists today, and that much of this could be done at no net cost to the industry. The EU strategy states that “the greatest benefits in net economic, environmental and social terms would be achieved by reducing venting and flaring [of gas], reducing leaks in fossil gas and oil production, transmission and combustion, and reducing methane emissions from coal mines”. To address these actions, the strategy states that the Commission will propose legislation in 2021 to require industry to measure and report on methane emissions, as well as obligate them to detect and repair leaks on fossil gas infrastructure. The Commission will also consider proposing legislation to eliminate routine flaring and venting, although it is worth noting that this was not phrased as a defined commitment. They also intend to reach out to the countries supplying fossil fuels, as well as other fossil-importing countries, to encourage their participation in methane reduction strategies.
What are some critiques of the EU methane strategy?
Many environmental organisations and activists find that the strategy, while proposing important steps, does not do enough in order to meaningfully reduce methane emissions. Much of the focus remains on accurately tracking and measuring emissions, rather than on taking concrete actions to reduce them. Although this is a crucial step, especially considering that oil and gas industries have been shown to be under-reporting emissions, a primary focus on reporting may lead to more delays in policy to restrict emissions. The strategy stops short of placing binding restrictions on the gas imported to the EU. It also fails to include any concrete efforts to reduce the quantities of fossil gas imported and used throughout the EU, although a reduction in the use of fossil fuels will be necessary to meet climate goals. The strategy also does not address the methane emissions that can occur as a result of the use of fossil gas in the petrochemical or plastics sector, instead focusing only on the use of gas within the energy industry.