Methane, Europe’s climate blind spot

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Poppy Kalesi, Energy Policy Director, Environmental Defense Fund Europe (EDF)
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In a resolution on the European Union’s (EU) net-zero strategy, on 14th March the European Parliament once again acknowledged the political urgency for legislation on what has, to date, been Europe’s climate blind spot: methane emissions. This vote is the fourth significant development in the space of the last months, raising expectations that the EU is finally embracing a major opportunity to better characterize emissions of methane and take action to unlock cost-effective mitigation.

Methane is a short-lived climate pollutant. Increases of methane in the atmosphere from human activity account for more than 25 percent of the warming we currently experience. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), over a 20 year period, methane has a global warming potential (GWP) up to 87 times higher than CO2. While methane breaks down in a decade, carbon dioxide sticks around for more than a century. To avert climate catastrophe in the near term and long term, we must reduce both.

The European Parliament also resolved to increase the EU’s ambition and cut the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent by 2030. As Europe moves to tighten overall limits on greenhouse gas emissions, the lack of a methane reduction strategy is a gap that must be resolved, as methane will heavily determine the rate of temperature rise over the next couple of decades. A recent EU Joint Research Centre study sets out the context for action on methane in Europe, emphasising that methane, which contributes to local air pollution and planetary warming, is not even being adequately measured today. But in 2019, the European Commission joined with EDF, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition and the global companies participating in the Oil & Gas Climate Initiative to participate in a series of scientific studies meant to give a better understanding of Europe’s footprint on global methane emissions.

Although not legally binding, this European Parliament resolution is the final climate resolution of the current mandate, and it will help raise expectations for the new Parliament. Rapid policy development on methane emissions should be a top priority for the new Parliament and feature prominently in the questions for the incoming Commission’s parliamentary hearings in September 2019.

Global methane emissions from the oil and gas sector need to be on a rapidly declining pathway. As one of the world’s largest consumers of gas, Europe can and must play a significant role in driving action on a global scale. Fortunately, methane emissions from the oil and gas sector have been recognised as low hanging fruit, with the technologies and approaches to mitigating them well known and inexpensive.

A well-designed, well-timed EU policy would focus on opportunities within Europe, and address the need for enhanced global cooperation to set standards for imported oil and gas supplies. The current EU gas market design optimizes for competition, market efficiency and consumer prices but it does nothing to deliver on sustainability. The upcoming gas market reform offers one route by which a significant domestic source can be addressed. The picture becomes more complex when looking at paths that work to address methane emissions associated with imported gas. This would require rethinking some old ideas in the context of gas quality, the security of supply and climate legislation as Europe is set to review the compatibility of its policies with the Paris Agreement.

In the context of the EU’s ambitions to deliver a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions strategy, the higher the leakage the longer the disadvantage persists.

As pressure builds to increase the pace and effectiveness of action on climate change, the new Parliament and Commission of the European Union have a great opportunity to unlock an area of action that has hitherto been largely ignored. Environmental Defense Fund Europe stands ready to assist, designing studies that deliver improved data to characterise methane emissions and opportunities to reduce those emissions, influencing industry and the investment community to take the problem more seriously and engaging with policymakers and politicians to ensure that they use their positions to drive change. Rapid action to deliver a future without net greenhouse gas emissions is possible – we owe it to future generations and to ourselves to raise our game.

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