The recently published ‘European Green Deal’ showed political honesty by focusing on high impact, actionable priorities where the EU has leverage to curtail climate-damaging emissions. The ambition is notable. Turning that ambition into action is now the next critical step. Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is one area where the EU has a major opportunity to apply its market power to drive down global emissions, both through methane legislation and diplomacy.
Methane stands as a critical test for the EU institutions to show that they have listened to EU citizens’ calls to act fast. EU methane legislation is not a luxury. Europe cannot meet its 2030 and 2050 targets, nor ensure the success of the Paris Agreement without it.
Europe is currently the world’s largest importer of internationally-traded gas, with much of its gas sourced from top methane-emitting countries, including Russia, the United States and Algeria.
Over the last several years, methane has emerged as a critical climate pollutant - one that countries must reduce in addition to carbon dioxide. Methane is a powerful heat trapper, more than 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over 20 years after it is emitted. At least 25% of the warming we feel today is driven by methane emissions caused by human activity.
Methane emissions from the oil and gas industry are among the largest sources of methane, responsible for around 25% of the total (EDF calculation based on these emission datasets: Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN 2018, US EPA 2012, IEA World Energy Outlook 2018, Alvarez et al. 2018). The ability of producers to avoid methane emissions should be a fundamental element in determining whether they would still be able to supply the EU market which, in 2017, bought 47% of internationally-traded gas in a context where the EU no longer views unabated gas as a transition fuel.
There are at least three good reasons for European decision-makers to take aggressive steps to regulate in this area now.
First, controlling methane emissions at key points along the oil and gas supply chain is cost-effective. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the oil and gas industry can achieve a 75% reduction in methane emissions with currently available technologies – and up to two-thirds are achievable at no net cost.
Second, as a major consumer of natural gas and with the gas market up for reform, the EU has the power to define which molecules will succeed in its gas market and which will not. This means creating incentives to tackle emissions across the European gas supply chain, not only domestically but also in supplier countries. Indeed, the EU should make clear to producers both inside the EU and beyond that credibly demonstrating very low methane emissions will be a requirement for gas placed on the EU internal market.
Finally, methane legislation could be a boon for Europe’s geopolitical outlook as its global market position on gas affords it leverage to negotiate better methane emissions performance among national oil companies. A lot rests on ambition. What looks highly ambitious to one set of stakeholders could look woefully inadequate to another, but when it comes to methane emissions, both civil society and industry agree, it is a no brainer: the EU’s buying power as a major gas importer gives it a voice no one can ignore.
Any effective regulation will need to keep up with developing technology, and the EU should use all opportunities to ensure that research and development in this space is properly funded. A suite of technologies, from satellites to infrared cameras and drone-based sensors, are already being used to determine the severity of the methane emissions problem and pinpoint “hotspots” that most need to be addressed. But we need to do more to improve accuracy and generate analytics and information services.
In the past, the “dash to gas” may have appeared a logical solution to decarbonise. Its low cost makes it intrinsically attractive but failing to address methane emissions throughout the supply chain undermines EU climate objectives and would ultimately damage the EU’s credibility.
The bottom line is this: judge a person (or an institution) not by their words, but by their actions. If EU policymakers are serious about achieving climate neutrality by 2050, and proving to voters that they are up to the task, it is necessary to make the ease of doing business in the EU’s gas market dependent on low methane gas performance. Fortunately, the case for EU methane legislation and the opportunity for impact have never been clearer.
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