Will the COP26 pledge to cut methane emissions really help the climate crisis?

Yes, methane is a huge contributor to climate change. No, cow farts aren’t the only thing to blame.

Remember when you were taught about greenhouse gases at school and everyone made cow fart jokes about methane? Well, it turns out that it’s still a pretty bad contributor to the climate crisis. In fact, it’s responsible for about a third of the warming temperature since pre-industrial times.

This is why global leaders pledged to cut methane emissions by 30 per cent compared with 2020 levels at COP26 last week. Led by Joe Biden and the EU, and first proposed in September, The Global Methane Pledge has been signed by over 100 countries. Here’s everything you need to know to get clued up.

What is methane and why is it bad for the environment?

Methane is a greenhouse gas that is almost 10 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in terms of heating the planet. Unlike CO2, it’s a short-lived pollutant with an atmospheric lifetime of around 10 years. It’s also the major contributor to the creation of ground-level ozone (AKA tropospheric ozone), which causes a million premature deaths per year through long-term exposure.

The 2021 IPCC report concluded that methane is responsible for at least a quarter of today’s rising temperatures, a figure that’s separate from its contribution to the aforementioned accumulative temperature rises. In order for us to effectively tackle climate change, we need to more than halve all methane emissions.

How is methane produced and how does it leak out into the atmosphere?

Methane is produced by a combination of human-influenced sources and natural sources. The natural sources are decay in wetlands, seepage of gas from natural deposits underground and the digestion of food by cattle. Meanwhile, the manmade sources of methane include landfills, the fossil fuel energy sector, wastewater treatment and other industrial processes.

It’s difficult to know how much specific sources are responsible for annual methane increases, but vegans will be glad to know that preliminary research by the University of Colorado shows that biological sources of methane are much more burdensome than other energy sector sources. It seems like Salt Bae’s extortionate gold-leaf steak should be off the menu for good.

What does the COP26 pledge promise?

The voluntary pledge aims to cut 30 per cent of methane emissions by 2030, which could help us avoid nearly 0.3 degrees of global warming by 2040. According to Joe Biden, who led the methane conversation at COP26, the 100 countries that have signed the pledge emit nearly half of all methane on the planet and make up 70 per cent of the global GDP.

Recent scientific research has found that cutting the ground-level ozone could prevent 255,000 premature deaths, 775,000 asthma-related hospital visits, 73 billion hours of lost labour from extreme heat and 26 million tonnes of crop losses globally.”

Also, most of the methane curbs can be achieved at little or no cost from the fossil fuel energy sector.

Will cutting methane save us from the climate crisis?

It’s a great start, but cutting methane alone won’t save us from the climate crisis. If the Global Methane Pledge holds up and we can stop a 0.3‑degree rise in global temperatures by 2040, that’s obviously a positive, especially when every fraction of a degree means the difference between life and death. However, this effort won’t necessarily be enough to mitigate the out of control rise in global temperatures from other atmospheric gases, namely CO2.

Plus, big polluters such as Russia, Australia, China and India have not signed the pledge, which leaves many people feeling worried about the lack of global unity on fighting the climate crisis. And when the commitment is voluntary and not legally binding in any way, will any of the 100 countries that have signed really stick to their promises?

The Global Methane Pledge is a good thing for global leaders to point at when interrogated over their lack of action on the climate crisis, but it can’t become the only thing. The burning planet needs far more from COP26 than this one pledge.

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