Dispatches From Warsaw: New Partnership Between Governments And Industry To Reduce Methane

CREDIT: Gwynne Taraska

WARSAW, POLAND — As the U.N. climate talks struggle forward in Warsaw, Todd Stern, the U.S. special envoy on climate change, announced that the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) will launch a partnership with oil and gas companies to reduce the potent greenhouse gas methane.

It is “really gratifying to get into a context where the order of the day is action,” Stern said.

The announcement is important for addressing a huge source of climate change, given that methane emissions account for approximately 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally. In the U.S., oil and gas systems represent the single largest source of methane emissions — worldwide, they represent the largest source of methane emissions after agriculture.

Reductions in methane emissions are both economically and technically possible. Many of the emissions reduction options identified by the Natural Gas STAR program, for example, are low-cost and have a payback period of within three years.

Stern reported today that the methane partnership would provide a framework, drafted by members of the CCAC and industry representatives, for methane emissions mitigation to guide industry action. He also said the partner companies would submit plans to address methane emissions, and there would be annual reporting components. The CCAC is currently getting several companies on board so it may launch the partnership this year.

The CCAC is an international, cooperative initiative founded by the U.N. Environment Programme and the governments of the U.S., Canada, Bangladesh, Mexico, Sweden, and Ghana. It now includes over 30 member countries as well as the European Commission and non-state partners such as the World Bank and the World Health Organization.

The goal of the CCAC is to reduce short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs). These pollutants, which include methane and black carbon (soot), do not last as long in the atmosphere as CO2 but are much more potent. Methane, for example, traps 34 times as much heat as CO2 over a 100-year timeframe. Initiatives to limit SLCPs could reduce warming by 0.5°C by 2050.

Why short-term emissions reductions matter

Negotiators at the climate talks are currently working toward a 2015 global agreement to achieve emissions reductions beginning in 2020. However, before 2020, there is an “ambition gap” between the current CO2 emissions reduction pledges by countries and the reductions that must be made to maintain the possibility of keeping global warming to within 2°C over pre-industrial levels. This is where the CCAC and other bodies come in. Stern pointed to the Montreal Protocol, which is a body in which the U.S. is pushing for a phase down of hydrofluorocarbons that can reduce more than 90 gigatons of CO2 equivalent by mid-century.

The formal negotiations in Warsaw this week have not yet included substantial discussion on pre-2020 ambition. Therefore, the need to pursue an all-of-the-above emissions reduction strategy becomes even more important. “There is huge potential to get short term and meaningful reductions,” said Stern, “if we can work on a purely voluntary and self-selected basis. [This effort is] not in any way inconsistent with the [UNFCCC], it is just different.”

Other forums for near-term reductions

The CCAC methane partnership is just one of several programs announced in Warsaw that aim to spur near-term emissions reductions. Black carbon is also targeted. Black carbon, which results from incomplete burning of fossil fuels, biofuels, and biomass, leads to a range of health problems, including asthma, low birth weight, and heart disease. The reduction of black carbon emissions would have clear health benefits, in addition to climate benefits.

CCAC announced initiatives with the World Bank to develop a black carbon study group and with the World Health Organization to develop responses to the health effects of black carbon. Rachel Kyte, World Bank Vice President for the Sustainable Development Network, said in a panel in Warsaw on Monday that reducing SLCPs such as black carbon “means we can reap huge benefits … We can have very clear development benefits on the health and agricultural systems of the developing world.”

Some might worry that in pursuing efforts outside the UNFCCC process we are undermining that process, or at least distracting attention from that process. Yet, as Kyte reminded the audience, we can maintain “two thoughts in our head at one time.” The general consensus seems to be, “Why not seize this opportunity? We have everything gain, and nothing to lose.” SLCP reduction provides a vital part of an all-of-the-above emissions reduction strategy.

Gwynne Taraska is the research director and interim director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University. She is also a visiting researcher at the Center for American Progress. Kenneth Shockley is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Sustainability Academy at the University at Buffalo.