Economic Update

Published 03 Nov 2021

– Methane emissions are a major contributor to climate change

– The Global Methane Pledge was a primary focus of the COP26 summit

– A number of leading emerging economies have signed up to the pledge

– The technology to cut emissions is available, but diplomatic hurdles exist

With world leaders meeting this week at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, a number of emerging markets have demonstrated their willingness to work with international partners on the matter of reducing methane emissions.

US President Joe Biden’s final speech in the context of the summit focused on methane emissions, and specifically the Global Methane Pledge.

Launched in September and led jointly by the US and the EU, the Global Methane Pledge represents the first coordinated international effort to address methane emissions. Its goal is to precipitate a 30% drop in global emissions – relative to 2020 baseline levels – before the end of the decade.

Methane emissions are the second-biggest cause of global warming after carbon dioxide.

According to the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, methane was responsible for approximately half of the 1°C net rise in global average temperatures since the pre-industrial era.

Action to reduce emissions is thus a key element of broader decarbonisation efforts. If the pledge’s targets are met, it could potentially result in a reduction of 0.2°C in global warming by 2050. While this may not sound like a huge difference, it would play a significant role in reducing the frequency and force of extreme weather events.

In light of this, signing up to the Global Methane Pledge has been called the most significant single action that world leaders can take in the context of COP26.

Alongside richer nations, the pledge has garnered the endorsement of a number of emerging economies, among them Argentina, Indonesia, Mexico and Nigeria. Brazil, which is one of the world’s top-five biggest emitters of methane, has also signed the pledge.

The complete list of supporting countries now totals more than 100, and together accounts for around half of global methane emissions, as well as 70% of the global economy.

Approaches to cutting emissions

The technology required to meet the pledge’s goals already exists. The UN Environmental Programme’s recently released Global Methane Assessment underlines that nearly half of the methane released through human activities could be cut by the end of this decade, and that affordable tools to do so are already available.

In addition, advances in satellite technology have made it easier to detect and address methane leaks, providing what the European Space Agency has called “an important new tool to combat climate change”.

Alongside technological solutions, there are a range of practice-based solutions available to countries seeking to reduce their emissions.

Agriculture is a major contributor to global methane emissions, with rice cultivation representing 10% of total anthropogenic emissions and livestock farming 30%.

Given that agriculture remains the backbone of many emerging market economies, innovations on this front could significantly reduce global emissions without leading to the destruction of agricultural industries.

Thankfully, there are various tried-and-tested solutions. In the case of rice cultivation, alternating irrigation considerably reduces emissions, as well as increasing yields. This method has seen notable success in West Africa, Tamil Nadu in India and south-west Asia.

Meanwhile, the “methanisation” – or transformation into biogas – of animal manure and other agricultural waste products can considerably reduce emissions.

In Thailand, for example, biogas is produced from the waste streams of its cassava starch sector and pig farms.

Diplomatic hurdles

While the Global Methane Pledge is indicative of a growing political will to leverage such technologies and practices in the fight against methane emissions, there is still some way to go in terms of global diplomacy.

Notable in their absence from the pledge’s list of supporters are China, India and Russia, three countries which together account for around one-third of methane emissions. Australia has similarly refrained from signing up.

In an indication of some of the difficulties facing those who are working towards a multilateral consensus on emissions, a statement released in mid-October by the Like-Minded Developing Countries group – which includes China, India, Egypt, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam – described the more ambitous goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, which has been pushed by some developed nations, as being “anti-equity and against climate justice”.

The group accused richer nations of refusing to address their historical responsibility for initiating climate change, and of trying to shift responsibility onto developing nations.

Indeed, the absence of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin from the COP26 meeting was seen by many as an indication of how difficult it could be to achieve any global consensus.