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Use Montreal Protocol-type framework to reduce methane fast, says expert

Calling methane emission reductions the single most effective way to halt the global rise in temperatures, Durwood Zaelke, a leading expert on short-lived climate pollutants like methane and black carbon, has called for a Montreal Protocol-like arrangement for methane.

Zaelke, founder president of the Washington-based Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, has been working on strategies that can have a quick impact on the steadily rising temperatures. In an interview with The Indian Express at the COP27 meeting in Sharm el-Shaikh, Zaelke said the pledge made at Glasgow meeting last year to cut methane emissions had to the potential to avoid about 0.2 degree Celsius of global warming by 2050.

“It is a very encouraging pledge. If it is delivered, we would be able to avoid about 0.2 degree Celsius of global warming. In fact, we can do more. A recent analysis by UN Environment Programme showed that methane emissions can be reduced by about 45 per cent by the 2040s. That could result in the avoidance of 0.3 degree Celsius of warming. Our target should clearly be 0.3 degree Celsius avoidance, but the global pledge in Glasgow is actually a great beginning,” Zaelke said.

A group of about 100 countries had signed on to a voluntary pledge in Glasgow to make at least 30 per cent reduction in methane emissions by 2030 from the 2020 baseline. That pledge, though not part of the official decisions, is considered one of the most significant outcomes from Glasgow, considering the importance of reducing the emissions of methane.

Methane, chemically CH4, is the second most common among the six major greenhouse gases, after carbon dioxide, and accounts for about 17 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Compared to carbon dioxide which stays in the atmosphere for 100 years or more, methane has a relatively shorter lifespan of about 12 years, but has a significantly higher global warming potential, about 80 times that of carbon dioxide. At least 30 per cent of the rise in temperature since the industrial revolution is attributed to methane emissions.

“It is very potent. But if we reduce it fast, and we can, we also stand to gain much more. My recommendation has been — and I have been talking to many governments, negotiators, and others — that the Montreal Protocol be used as an inspiration for a global methane agreement,” Zaelke said referring to the 1988 international agreement to eliminate gases that damage the ozone layer.

The Montreal Protocol is considered the most successful international environmental regulation, having managed to eliminate almost 90 per cent of the ozone-depleting chemicals like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which were widely used in the furniture and air-conditioning industry. In 2016, HFCs (hydrofluorocarbons), a strong greenhouse gas being used as a replacement for CFCs, was also brought under the Montreal Protocol. Some of the HFCs, earlier covered under the climate change agreements, have global warming potential hundreds, or even thousands, of times more than carbon dioxide.

The inclusion of HFCs in the Montreal Protocol has put them on the road to a much quicker elimination. This move is estimated to result in an avoidance of 0.5 degree Celsius of warming by the end of this century.

Zaelke, one of the co-authors of the paper that estimated the avoidance potential of HFCs, said a methane reduction also needed to be fast-tracked. But it cannot be put under the Montreal Protocol because unlike HFCs, it is not an ozone-depleting substance. Montreal Protocol is targeted only at ozone-depleting substances.

“The key architectures of the Montreal Protocol can be borrowed but then the governance approach has to be tailored to target the three main sources of methane emissions separately. The first one has to be the methane emissions from mining and production of fossil fuels,” Zaelke said.

Methane emissions mainly come from the fossil fuel industry, as leakages during the mining, drilling or handling of coal, oil or natural gas. Zaelke said this can be put to a stop immediately.

“It is an engineering problem. We don’t have to discover anything new here. You have to identify the sources and processes involved in the leak. Ultimately, it is just about measuring, monitoring and plugging. We have the tools to do that. This kind of methane emissions could be brought to a minimum. And at least half of this leakage can be done at profit, meaning the fossil fuel companies can actually use the methane as fuel. I think if the fossil fuel industry has any chance of keeping its social license for the future it has to ensure lowest possible methane intensity,” he said.

The methane emissions coming from waste could also be handled effectively, Zaelke said.

“That brings us to the methane from agricultural and livestock practices. That is a little difficult because farmers are going to face bigger and bigger challenges from climate change. You cannot ask them to do things for climate unless you are willing to help them. So, this is going to require generous subsidies. There are solutions that have the potential …. to deal with methane coming out from standing water in paddy fields, from the ruminants of cattle. These are being tried out. They require investment and scaling up. So it requires some effort right now. But the other two sources (of methane emissions) — fossil fuel and waste — can absolutely be done. We are ready to go on those. 95 per cent of methane emissions from fossil fuels can be reduced by 2030,” Zaelke said.

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He said the world needed to focus on technology and processes that give faster results on climate change. The Montreal Protocol was an extremely good model to adopt.

“Let’s do the sectoral gases first. Target methane. Use a Montreal Protocol type arrangement. When we had the discovery of ozone hole, the world had panicked. But then we found a way out. Montreal Protocol was done in nine months. And besides repairing ozone, it is already avoiding about 2.5 degree Celsius of warming — 1.5 degree from the fluorinated gases that are on the verge of getting eliminated, and about one degree from the repair of ozone layer that is preventing ultra violet radiations coming in and destroying photosynthesis process. Damn, this Montreal Protocol is good,” Zaelke said.

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“The fight against climate change is a marathon. But if we don’t win the sprint first, we are never going to win the marathon. It is this period of the next 10 or 20 years in which we are going to win or lose the climate battle. We will either be able to slow down the feedbacks that are warming the planet, or we go beyond the 1.5 degree temperature limit and let the climate tipping points take over,” he said.

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