Methane agreement a good start but heavy lifting remains: experts

The new international agreement to slash methane emissions has the potential to quickly put a big dent in global temperature increases, but Canada needs to do more to live up to its commitments, experts say.

The 24-country agreement was brokered by the U.S. and European Union ahead of the COP 26 meetings in November, where countries will meet in Glasgow, Scotland to further discuss how to limit global warming and finalize the rules of the Paris Agreement. The countries agreed to reduce methane emissions by 30 per cent below 2020 levels by 2030.

The signatories to the methane agreement account for about 30 per cent of total emissions. Some of the largest methane emitters – such as China, Russia, and Brazil — didn’t sign on.

Though the agreement didn’t include the largest emitters, it’s “important to demonstrate internationally that Canada is taking significant action on methane,” said Michael Bernstein, executive director of Canadians for Clean Prosperity, a non-profit that’s actively lobbying the federal government. “Hopefully by being part of that coalition will be able to catalyze other countries to take further action.”

Canada’s track record with getting countries to sign on to the Powering Past Coal Alliance potentially bodes well for getting more countries to agree to reduce methane emissions, Bernstein said. Canada and the U.K. launched the agreement to phase out coal in November 2017, and since then more countries, cities and companies have signed on.

In 2018, Canada emitted just over 95 metric tonnes of methane measured in carbon dioxide equivalent, putting it 15th on the list of largest emitters. Carbon dioxide equivalent is a metric used to standardize greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions from different sources based on a gases’ potential to contribute to global warming.

Methane is a particularly important GHG to curb because it contributes significantly to global temperature rises, said Jan Gorski, a senior analyst with the non-profit Pembina Institute. Pembina is also actively lobbying the federal government.

Unlike carbon dioxide, another significant GHG that stays in the atmosphere for centuries, methane only sticks around for about 10 years, he said.

“That makes (methane) totally different (from carbon dioxide), but at the same time it’s a much more powerful gas while it’s in the atmosphere,” said Ryan Katz-Rosene, a professor at the University of Ottawa.

“Even small reductions in methane can pack a pretty important punch for climate mitigation in the short term,” he said. “Whereas in the long term, you’re kind of screwed if you don’t tackle carbon dioxide. You can’t rely on methane reductions for mitigating climate change in the long run.”

Most of Canada’s methane emissions come from the oil, gas and agricultural sectors, with some additional emissions from the waste and forestry sectors, said Katz-Rosene. About 4o per cent of methane emissions are from oil and gas; about 20 per cent are from agriculture; while waste and forestry account for about 15 per cent each, according to Oxford University’s Our World in Data project.

Prior to the agreement, Canada already had policies in place to curb methane emissions by 40 to 45 per cent below 2012 levels by 2025 in the oil and gas sector. The federal government drafted “equivalency agreements” that provincial governments in the major oil and gas provinces — B.C., Saskatchewan, and Alberta — must meet. Those provincial governments are responsible for enforcing the rules within their respective jurisdictions.

Recent modelling from Pembina, however, suggested the current policies would only achieve a 29 per cent reduction by 2025. Other studies have suggested there’s much more methane in the atmosphere than government figures show.

As part of the international agreement, Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson announced the government’s new target of a 75 per cent reduction in methane emissions from the oil and gas sector below 2012 levels by 2030, but did not announce any additional policies. It’s still unclear if Wilkinson will remain in his post after the promised post-election cabinet shuffle this month.

Oil and gas emissions are easier to curb than those from agriculture and some good policies are already in place as part of the federal-provincial agreements, Gorski said.

The policies include setting “performance standards on equipment that prevents releasing methane” and requiring “companies to go and look for leaks,” he said.

Agricultural emissions, however, are more difficult to curb, Katz-Rosene said.

“One of the main contributors to methane in agriculture is cattle and sheep production,” he said.

Options to reduce agricultural methane emissions include deploying “nascent” technologies, introducing new additives to the animals food supply, or trying to change dietary preferences, he said. “It’s much harder to change behaviour than it is” to build leak-resistant infrastructure at oil and gas plants.

“The other thing is that because of demographic trends we’re seeing a growing population … so the demand for beef is expected to go up,” he said. Even if beef consumption drops off in North America, “it’s hard to imagine” that being the case in parts of the developing world.

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