Rightly, carbon dioxide has long been the focus for those seeking to lower global temperatures – indeed, decarbonisation has been a by-word for climate action. But another, long-ignored greenhouse gas has been climbing the list of priorities: methane.
Largely, tackling the emission of methane is regarded as a holding-pattern, a means of extending the ever-nearing deadline for irreversible climate change. It is hoped that a reduction in methane emissions might be able to buy time in this way as a result of methane’s particular qualities. For although there's a lot more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and it sticks around for much longer, individual molecules of methane have a significantly more powerful warming-effect than carbon dioxide molecules.
It is reported that methane accounts for only 3% of emissions by mass, but certain estimates suppose that the methane in the atmosphere may account for 23% of the total radiative force of all emissions and, indeed, this greenhouse gas has an average global-warming potential (GWP), which measures the heat absorbed by a particular gas as a multiple of that absorbed by carbon dioxide, of 28 over a century and 80 over a period of twenty years.
It is out of this new understanding of methane’s role in changing global temperatures that the Global Methane Pledge emerged.
Ursula von der Leyen, Chief of the European Union Commission, and Joe Biden, President of the United States, made the announcement at the UN’s 26th Climate Change Conference in the Winter of 2021. The Pledge sets out a commitment to cut global methane emissions by 30% within the decade, receiving signatures from over 100 delegates at the UN’s 26th Climate Change Conference in the Winter of 2021, including delegates from the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union. Appropriately, the biggest players were targeted, such that, in total, the signatories emit nearly half of all methane and are responsible for 70% of global GDP.
According to the latest research, there are three main sources of methane emissions. Firstly, methane is released during the extraction of raw fossil fuels, particularly during the mining of coal. Secondly, the gas is being produced by the decomposition biodegradable waste in landfills across the globe. And lastly, our ever-increasing appetite for beef has requires an explosion in the number of grazing cattle, which, in turn, has meant more methane in the atmosphere.
“We cannot wait for 2050," von der Leyen stated in announcing the Pledge. "We have to cut emissions fast." The Chief of the Commission went on to claim that reducing methane emissions was "one of the most effective things we can do to reduce near-term global warming", calling it "the lowest hanging fruit".
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