IEA (2023), Global Methane Tracker 2023, IEA, Paris https://www.iea.org/reports/global-methane-tracker-2023, License: CC BY 4.0
The case for methane policy and regulation
An immediate and significant change in the pace and scale of methane action is needed to achieve reductions consistent with international climate objectives. While industry efforts can and should play an important role, government policy and regulation will be critical to removing or mitigating obstacles that prevent companies from getting started and going further. Methane abatement faces a number of challenges, including information gaps, missing infrastructure and economic barriers.
Governments can address these barriers with policy and regulatory tools. If information poses a barrier, policies can include measures on monitoring, reporting and verification of emissions, or initiatives to encourage knowledge-sharing and best practices. With respect to infrastructure, governments might introduce requirements in the planning stages of projects or directly invest in building new infrastructure. Governments may also be able to price environmental externalities, create financial incentives for the capture and use of methane or for expenditures in abatement technologies, and remove barriers to investment.
The Global Methane Pledge (GMP) was launched at COP26 in November 2021 to catalyse action to reduce methane emissions. Led by the United States and the European Union, the Pledge now has 150 country participants who together are responsible for more than half of global methane emissions from human activity. By joining the Pledge, countries commit to work together to collectively reduce methane emissions by at least 30% below 2020 levels by 2030. Meeting that target has the potential to make an enormous impact on climate change, similar to the entire global transport sector adopting net zero emissions technologies.
The GMP has brought new momentum for methane action. Many countries made new and renewed commitments in 2022, including the announcement of a new GMP Energy Pathway that aims to accelerate methane emissions reductions in the fossil fuel sector. Separately, the United States, the European Union, Japan, Canada, Norway, Singapore, and the United Kingdom announced a Joint Declaration committing to advance new policies and measures to achieve rapid reductions from domestic oil, gas and coal operations, to support robust measurement and transparency of emissions data, and to require or strongly incentivise reductions from imported fossil fuels.
A growing number of countries are releasing national action plans to tackle methane emissions. This includes Canada’s strategy to achieve an overall 35% reduction by 2030 through a mixture of regulations and incentives applied to the fossil fuels, waste and agriculture sectors. Viet Nam has a target to reduce its methane emissions by 30% with specific reduction targets in 2025 and 2030 for emissions from oil and gas extraction, coal mining, and fossil-fuel consumption. The Climate and Clean Air Coalition has also developed country methane profiles and a Methane Roadmap Action Programme to support further development and implementation of national methane reduction roadmaps. The United States and the European Union announced at COP27 that the World Bank’s Global Gas Flaring Reduction Partnership would expand beyond flaring to cover methane emissions reductions as well and become the Global Flaring and Methane Reduction Partnership.
The announcement of the GMP was paired with more than USD 300 million of commitments from philanthropic organisations to support the scale up of mitigation strategies. The Global Methane Hub was established to channel this funding to projects that can reduce methane emissions across all sectors.
Many GMP participants issued new policies and actions in 2022 that will help tackle methane emissions. The United States’ Inflation Reduction Act includes a charge on methane emitted by oil and gas companies based on empirical and accurate measurements as well as USD 1.55 billion in financial and technical assistance for methane abatement in that sector. Nigeria issued guidelines for emissions management in the upstream oil and gas sector to support the elimination of routine gas flaring by 2030, and a 60% reduction in fugitive methane emissions by 2031. Colombia became the first South American country to regulate methane emissions from its oil and gas sector, including equipment standards and leak detection and repair requirements. Canada, the European Union and the United States also made progress on new regulatory proposals, which are expected to be issued in 2023.
Around 140 bcm of natural gas is flared globally each year. This is a major source of CO2 emissions, methane and black soot, and is damaging to health. Regulations need to address flaring and methane emissions in tandem, to avoid that a requirement to reduce flaring creates an incentive to vent gas directly to the atmosphere instead. Colombia’s regulation, for example, sets out requirements for methane mitigation and limits for gas flaring as well as methodologies to quantify flaring, venting and fugitive methane emissions.
There should be minimal methane emissions if a flare is designed, maintained and operated correctly, but higher emissions can occur as a result of factors such as weather and changes in production rates. Occasionally a flare may be totally extinguished, resulting in direct venting of methane to the atmosphere of gas that should be combusted. Recent studies indicate that only around 90-92% of natural gas and associated liquids directed into flares at the main oil and gas producing regions of the United States were properly combusted.
Based on a detailed bottom-up assessment of production types, facility and flare design practices, operators, changes in produced volumes over field lifetime, local crosswind variability, and the strength of regulation, oversight and enforcement of flaring sites around the world, we estimate that flares have a global average combustion efficiency of around 92%. As result, we estimate that flares cause around 270 Mt CO2 emissions from combustion as well as 8 Mt of methane emissions. Flaring therefore results in more than 500 Mt CO2‑eq annual GHG emissions.
There are many positive examples of cutting flaring and methane emissions. Angola reduced flaring volumes by around 60% between 2016 and 2021 following its endorsement of the World Bank’s Zero Routine Flaring by 2030 initiative. Norway banned non-emergency flaring in 1971 and has successfully managed to keep very low levels of both flaring and methane emissions.
Preventing all non-emergency flaring and venting would avoid close to 20% of oil and gas methane emissions and is the single most impactful measure countries can take. Limiting flaring and venting to emergencies would also lower local air pollution and cut black carbon emissions, which is another contributor to climate change. Alternatives to flaring and venting include reinjection, on-site use and new market opportunities.
Some of the largest flaring reduction opportunities are in North Africa: around 10 bcm of natural gas was flared at upstream assets in Algeria and Egypt. Most flares operate on a continuous basis and more than three quarters are at sites within 20 km of existing gas pipelines that have ready access to an existing export pipeline or LNG facility according to analysis from Capterio.
Flaring and methane emissions are a major waste of natural resources, all the more so given tight natural gas markets in 2022. With the right policies and on-the-ground implementation of flaring and methane emissions abatement measures, we estimate that around 200 bcm of additional gas could be brought to markets, a volume greater than EU natural gas imports from Russia prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Potential gas supply from eliminating non-emergency flaring and curtailing methane emissions, 2022Open
Governments, non-governmental organisations and industry efforts are improving the understanding of emissions trends in some regions and sectors. However, a comprehensive view will only emerge once countries improve monitoring systems and initiatives such as the International Methane Observatory mature. With the rapid development of satellites and other monitoring systems, this could happen in a couple of years, in time to track growing policy commitments.
Not all countries have prepared a detailed UNFCCC inventory for 2020, while many others reported levels that do not match what was recorded by measurement campaigns. Some countries regularly update their inventories based on longstanding reporting frameworks that require companies to submit emissions data, such as the Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program in the United States. Companies in these countries are working to improve measurement and monitoring. Other countries do not prepare annual inventory updates and may not have conducted national inventories in many years due to capacity or resource constraints. These considerations are explicitly recognised in the UNFCCC reporting framework, which has different requirements for “Annex I” and “non-Annex I” countries.
For those countries where data is lacking, improving their inventory methodologies and ensuring comparability – incorporating direct measurement where possible and developing facility and source-specific emissions factors – will be an important marker of early progress. Indeed, the Global Methane Pledge commits countries to move “towards using the highest tier IPCC good practice inventory methodologies.” As data and measurement processes improve, comparisons across countries will become easier. In the meantime, modelling-based estimates can help fill this gap and inform progress tracking. Countries should also commit to regularly updating their UNFCCC inventories, particularly those that have not done so in many years.
Methane emissions from human activity for top emitters as reported to the UNFCCC and estimates by the IEAOpen
The lack of an accurate baseline should not deter action to begin reducing emissions. There are a number of known solutions that can be implemented immediately, even with imperfect information.
Countries that have joined the GMP currently account for over half of total methane emissions from human activity and about 45% of methane from fossil fuel operations. The Pledge is non-binding and individual countries are not assigned targets and it will be critical for participants to engage with countries that have not joined the GMP.
There are substantial opportunities for engagement with these countries. For example, in the 2021 US-China Joint Glasgow Declaration, China committed to develop a “comprehensive and ambitious National Action Plan on methane, aiming to achieve a significant effect on methane emissions control and reductions in the 2020s.” Since then, China has been working on a national action plan to address methane emissions, which is expected in 2023.
Fossil fuels importers can encourage reductions in methane emissions from their trading partners, including through diplomatic pressure, incentives, technical and institutional support, and trade measures. Examples include financing instruments, emissions certificates, price premiums for lower intensity gas, minimum intensity standards and border adjustment mechanisms. Efforts are more likely to be effective if paired with technical and institutional support to enhance regulatory capacity and avoid distortions in the market.
The proposed EU framework to decarbonise gas markets, promote hydrogen and reduce methane emissions includes measures that could address methane emissions from gas imports. More recently, the EU external energy engagement strategy aims to ensure that new gas supplies are coupled with actions to reduce methane leaks and address venting and flaring. It also aims to provide technical assistance to partners to deploy methane abatement technologies through “You collect/we buy” schemes.