Recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Working Group II report, the latest in a long line of reports that illustrate the urgent need for climate action. The accelerating human and natural impacts of the warming climate — impacts that are hardest-hitting for the most vulnerable, and outpacing efforts to adapt — are detailed at length in the IPCC’s latest report, and should be a grim warning to policymakers around the world.
Working Group I’s contribution ahead of COP26 helped focus world leaders on the issue of methane abatement. That report illustrated that reducing methane emissions is a critical action we must take now that will significantly reduce the amount of global warming we experience in the next two decades. Working Group II builds on this message by providing detailed insights into the dangerous, heated future we are rapidly approaching without extremely aggressive mitigation of methane and carbon dioxide.
For decades, assessments tended to anticipate that the impacts of climate change would worsen at a steady rate. However, over the past few years, the science has evolved. We now understand that these catastrophic tipping points — such as the loss of the Amazon rainforest or the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet and the terrible impacts of those transformations on vulnerable populations — can occur at much lower temperatures or more rapidly than once thought. We simply cannot assume slow, steady adaptation to climate change will be adequate.
The best way to put a handbrake on global warming is by rapidly cutting methane emissions, and what’s hopeful about that is we already have the tools and technology to achieve big cuts in this decade. We simply need the political will to make it happen.
Methane is a harmful super pollutant that warms the planet more than 80 times more than carbon dioxide over its first 20 years in the atmosphere. It’s responsible for about half a degree Celsius of global warming so far, and its levels are rising fast: the atmospheric growth rate in 2021 was the fastest in years. Due to its short-lived nature, however, there are significant near-term benefits to cutting methane emissions now. Reducing methane pollution is an essential, first-line tool to slow global warming and avoid near-term and irreversible impacts.
Methane pollution comes from human activities in three broad sectors: fossil fuels, agriculture, and waste. And we have solutions available in all three. Affordable, currently available technologies could stop nearly half of these emissions this decade, enough to avoid 0.3 °C of warming by the 2040s.
In the case of fossil fuels, we can substantially reduce methane emissions by regularly inspecting oil and gas infrastructure for leaks and super-emitters, eliminating wasteful venting and flaring of gas, and updating outdated equipment at oil and gas facilities that emits methane by design. In the case of agriculture, we can curb emissions with better livestock and manure management practices throughout global meat and dairy production. Waste emissions, such as those from landfills, can be cut by requiring landfills to strictly control releases of methane-rich landfill gas, and by reducing and diverting organic waste (the source of much of the methane) away from landfills to compost it or process it in biogas digesters.
During COP26, more than 100 countries committed to the Global Methane Pledge, which aims at a 30% global reduction in methane emissions by 2030. Many of the supporters of the pledge are already spearheading the development of new methane policies, including the U.S., EU, Canada, Colombia, Ecuador, and Nigeria.
Governments are beginning to put these solutions into place — both at the U.S. state and federal level and around the world — but broad, ambitious actions are needed to achieve the necessary pace and scale of methane reductions.
With this new report, the world’s foremost climate scientists have delivered a dire warning about the massive impacts already being felt around the world and the risks of destabilizing the climate system. Those with the fewest resources are suffering the most, and every fraction of a degree matters. The need to quickly cut methane alongside carbon dioxide and other climate pollutants has never been clearer.