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The quickest climate fix

The quickest climate fix

How war in Ukraine threatens the quickest climate fix

Russia’s war in Ukraine is threatening one of the world’s most important short-term climate goals – reducing the quantity of methane leaking into the atmosphere.

High fuel prices because of the conflict are spurring an increase in drilling activity in the Permian, the biggest US oil basin, where methane emissions soared at the start of this year.

To give a sense of scale: the Permian covers an area of the US the size of Great Britain.

This is troubling. Methane has 80 times the warming potential of CO2, though over a shorter period as it usually disappears from the atmosphere after two decades.

“The only thing going to have a strong impact in our lifetime is methane reduction,” says Jonathan Banks of the Clean Air Task Force, an NGO. “Right now we have warmed 1.1-1.2C [above the Earth’s pre-industrial baseline]. If we reduced methane we would have the ability to knock off 0.3C… that is a huge deal.”

Over a hundred countries have signed up to a pledge to curb methane pollution that was formally launched at last year’s climate talks in Glasgow. It was one of a series of agreements between groups of countries aimed at tackling one front of the climate challenge – side-deals that included halting deforestation and phasing out coal power.

Russia, one of the world’s biggest emitters of methane, did not sign, and its engagement in climate talks this year is overshadowed by international isolation. Vladimir Putin’s climate envoy Anatoly Chubais has quit, reportedly over the war, and when a Russian official spoke at climate talks in Bonn this year, other delegates walked out.

So what would progress look like?

Aside from Russia, there are two big emitters that did not sign the pledge: China and India. 

  • Beijing reached a bilateral agreement with Washington to work together to reduce methane emissions this decade, offering some hope of progress.
  • India, where methane-belching cattle remain central to rural livelihoods, has taken part in talks convened by the US to discuss how to curb methane emissions, raising the prospect of an agreement similar to China’s.

While the methane pledge signed up countries and not companies, tackling the problem at corporate level matters too. Here, a number of oil and gas multinationals have set a target for reducing the proportion of methane leaking from their upstream production.

There is a spur to action: many energy majors see producing hydrogen from fossil fuels as part of their transition to a low-carbon economy, but recognise they have to deal with methane leaks if they want to present this as a climate-friendly option, Banks says.

However, the resurgence of drilling and fracking in the Permian Basin this year has been led by private operators, according to the energy analytics company Kayrros. Many of these ‘mom and pop’ oil companies lack the budget to monitor and control their leaks.

The science of methane is alarming. The concentration of this gas in the atmosphere slowed at the turn of the millennium but levels have been accelerating since 2007.

This may be connected to rising temperatures, which produce more methane (thawing permafrost results in a greater natural generation of the gas) and also slows down its removal from the atmosphere. The cost of inaction is growing.


Congo calling
The Democratic Republic of Congo has announced plans to auction off large tracts of land for oil and gas drilling, including two concessions that extend into the gorilla sanctuary of Virunga National Park. At Cop26, the DRC signed a ten-year agreement to protect its old-growth rainforest and tropical peatland. But Tosi Mpanu Mpanu, the country’s senior climate representative, has told the NYT the DRC’s economy now comes first: “Our priority is not to save the planet,” he said. It’s estimated 27 areas demarcated for drilling could produce up to a million barrels of oil a day, equivalent to $32 billion a year and more than half of the DRC’s GDP. But the environmental toll is unthinkable. Central African rainforests are a vital pillar of the world’s climate system, regulating weather patterns worldwide and storing 1.5 billion tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere every year. Given the current scrutiny over exploration, it’s a brave company that would purchase rights on land that is both high in biodiversity and prone to conflict. Still, rich nations can’t afford to be complacent. They need to raise more funds to compensate the DRC for protecting forests, and make it crystal clear to Kinshasa, using all available science, that drilling for oil in the rainforest is a catastrophically bad idea.

activism and engagement

John Kerry, the US envoy for climate, is considering announcing a climate emergency. The context: heat records were recorded in four northeastern US cities over the weekend, extended drought in western states has prompted mass cattle sell-offs and an explosive wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced 6,000 people to evacuate. Declaring a formal emergency would allow Biden to use executive orders like the Defence Production Act to circumnavigate a resistant US Congress and Supreme Court and greenlight several renewable and adaptation projects. They include a plan to earmark 700,000 acres in the Gulf of Mexico for offshore wind.


Green jobs
If the UK government sticks to the targets laid out in its energy security strategy thousands of additional jobs in green energy will be created. The trouble is, without additional investment in low-carbon energy it “will skew future employment away from areas the government wants to level up”, with most opportunities centred in the East, South West and South East of England. These are the findings of a new report by the thinktank Green Alliance, which found that wind and solar can support five times more secure and skilled jobs in the UK than gas generation, dispelling the myth that the transition will lead to job losses. Any prospective PM wanting to win support in the Red Wall would do well to heed the report’s recommendations: expand British onshore and offshore wind; incentivise companies to invest in green skills via the tax system; and set a 2035 phase out date for gas power.


Not-so alternative
The market in alternative proteins jumped to $5 billion in 2021, but exactly how much potential do they have to cut emissions? The latest estimates, from Boston Consulting Group, give an indication. It forecasts that alternative proteins will make up 11 per cent of global protein consumption by 2035. That alone could account for a reduction equivalent to decarbonising 95 per cent of the aviation industry. The report also says investment in the sector could yield up to three times more greenhouse gas reductions than green cement technology, seven times more than green buildings and 11 times more than zero-emission cars. But is it enough? Protein transformation is one part of a sorely-needed reboot of our food system. Join our ThinkIn this Thursday to discuss what else needs to change.

Thanks for reading, and do let me know if there’s anything I’m missing by writing to me at jeevan.vasagar@tortoisemedia.com.

Jeevan Vasagar

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