GLASGOW — The European Union and the United States have launched a landmark pledge to slash emissions of the powerful greenhouse gas methane, a commitment that could prevent 0.2 degrees Celsius of global warming.
The alliance’s members will seek to lower global emissions of methane — the second-largest contributor to climate change after carbon dioxide — by 30 percent below 2020 levels by 2030. Besides the EU and the U.S., more than 103 countries have signed up so far, including major methane emitters like Nigeria and Pakistan.
“We have to act now. We cannot wait for 2050; we have to cut emissions fast,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said at Tuesday’s pledge launch event at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow. “Cutting back on methane emissions is one of the most effective things we can do to reduce near-term global warming … it is the lowest-hanging fruit.”
The United Nations earlier this year urged world governments to tackle methane, saying that in the near term, it was the “strongest lever” to slow the pace of climate change.
Methane is far more potent but also shorter-lived than carbon dioxide, with its warming effect most powerful over two decades, whereas carbon dioxide sticks around in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. That means reducing methane now can have a relatively swift effect on global temperatures.
If met, the pledge will prevent 0.2 degrees of warming by the middle of this century — a significant amount given the effects of climate change, such as more frequent extreme weather events, will get worse with every 10th of a degree.
“What we do in this decade … is going to impact whether or not we can meet our longer-term commitment,” said U.S. President Joe Biden, speaking alongside von der Leyen. “One of the most important things we can do … to keep 1.5 degrees within reach is to reduce our methane emissions as quickly as possible.”
Some of the world’s top emitters of methane, however, haven’t signed up. Missing from the list of signatories are China, Russia and India.
According to Inger Andersen, director of the U.N. Environment Programme, the 30 percent pledge is an “ambitious starting point.” The U.N. says a reduction of 45 percent this decade is necessary to keep within reach the Paris Agreement target of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees.
There are also questions about enforcement and governance of the pledge. Members of the alliance don’t face individual targets for reducing their emissions, but rather “commit to work together in order to collectively reduce global anthropogenic methane emissions” by 30 percent this decade, according to the text, alongside committing to unspecified “comprehensive domestic actions.”
That means any country can sign up without drawing up a list of policies and goals — a feature key to getting half the world’s governments on board in the two months since the EU and the U.S. first announced the pledge — but offers little transparency or detail on how the 30 percent reduction is meant to be achieved.
The European Commission, for its part, hopes that the International Methane Emissions Observatory it helped launch this weekend will monitor commitments made by the pledge’s signatories.
The EU executive is expected to propose legislation for reducing the bloc’s methane emissions in December. The U.S. unveiled on Tuesday a set of regulations for methane emissions focusing on the energy sector.
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