Reducing the emissions of methane is a powerful and cost-effective way to act, and provides an essential complement to action of reducing CO2, according to the International Energy Agency
Oil and natural gas will be part of the energy system for decades to come – even under ambitious efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris Agreement.
As part of today’s energy transitions, it is therefore vital to reduce the immediate environmental impacts associated with producing and consuming these fuels. Reducing methane emissions is a powerful and cost-effective way to act, providing an essential complement to action on reducing CO2.
The concentration of methane in the atmosphere is currently around two-and-half times greater than pre-industrial levels and is increasing steadily. This rise has important implications for climate change.
Estimates of methane emissions are subject to a high degree of uncertainty, but the most recent comprehensive estimate suggests that annual global methane emissions are around 570 million tonnes (Mt). This includes emissions from natural sources (around 40% of emissions), and those originating from human activity (the remaining 60% – known as anthropogenic emissions).
The largest source of anthropogenic methane emissions is agriculture, responsible for around a quarter of the total, closely followed by the energy sector, which includes emissions from coal, oil, natural gas and biofuels.
Why focus on methane emissions from oil and gas?
It is important to tackle all sources of methane emissions arising from human activity, but there are reasons to focus on emissions from oil and gas operations.
Although emissions also come from coal and bioenergy, oil and gas operations are likely the largest source of emissions from the energy sector.
An analysis prepared by the International Energy Agency shows a clear margin to reduce them profitably. Unlike CO2, methane, the main component of natural gas, has a commercial value: the additional methane captured can often be monetized directly, and this is usually easier in the oil and gas sectors than in any other part of the world. energy sector.
This means that emission reductions could generate economic savings or be carried out at low cost.
The scenario projections also suggest that oil and, particularly, natural gas will play important roles in the energy system for decades to come, even under strong decarbonisation scenarios such as the IEA’s Sustainable Development Scenario.
Gas can play an important supporting role in energy transitions by replacing more polluting fuels; it may also deliver services that are difficult to provide cost-effectively with low-carbon alternatives, such as peak winter heating, seasonal storage, or high temperature heat for industry.
However, fulfilling this role requires that adverse social and environmental impacts are minimised: immediate and major reductions in methane emissions are central to this.
A compelling case for action
The World Energy Outlook 2017 produced detailed new estimates for methane emissions from oil and gas operations, which form the basis for the detailed data available in this methane tracker. “We also developed first-of-a-kind global marginal methane abatement cost curves”.
These curves describe the reduction potentials as well as the costs and revenues of measures to mitigate methane emissions globally.
Using this analysis, we estimate that it is technically possible to avoid around three quarters of today’s methane emissions from global oil and gas operations. Even more significantly, around 40-50% of current methane emissions could be avoided at no net cost
If a high share of current emissions can be mitigated using measures that will pay for themselves from the methane recovered, why have these not already been widely adopted?
This may not sound like much, but it is immense in climate terms. To yield the same reduction in the temperature rise by reducing CO2 emissions would require emitting 160 billion fewer tonnes of CO2 over the rest of the century. This is broadly equivalent to the CO2 emissions that would be saved by immediately shutting down 60% of the world’s coal-fired power plants that are in operation today and replacing them with zero-emissions generation.
Source: International Energy Agency