President Joe Biden went to Glasgow and COP26 to reestablish climate leadership on the international stage. So how did he do? The activists and NGOs that are watching closely have one word for you: Methane.
COP26 was never going to be easy. Leaders of both Russia and China, which is the world’s largest greenhouse gas polluter, decided to stay home. And the richer nations came in way behind on fulfilling their financial pledges to poorer economies. Finally, disparity in the availability of Covid-19 vaccinations between countries was a source of underlying tension.
Still, the conference can point to one success story: an agreement by more than 105 nations to cut global methane emissions by 30% over 2020 levels by 2030. It wouldn’t have happened without American leadership. “The methane pledge was a positive demonstration of the ability of the U.S. to engage effectively with other countries," said David Waskow, director of the International Climate Initiative at the World Resources Institute, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit.
The idea of a pact to contain methane, an invisible gas that is more than 80 times as potent at trapping heat than CO₂ during its first 20 years of release, was originally championed by the European Union. But the mantel was then taken up by U.S. Climate Special Envoy John Kerry, who traveled tirelessly to get skeptical countries to sign on.
The U.S. is still in talks with Russia over joining, with Kerry meeting officials from the country last week, a State Department official said. The U.S. secured new sign-ons from Malaysia and Bahrain and is also recruiting financial institutions to get involved in the methane effort.
Yes, there is plenty of room for improvement. The treaty is non-binding and shoots for a collective target, as opposed to holding individual nations responsible for reductions. But that's true of the entire Paris agreement itself.
Pledges like this are about formalizing a commitment and then bringing peer pressure to bear on the signers and laggards alike. For the first time an international agreement requires all signers to engage in measuring methane emissions meaningfully — a mandate that is essential to cracking down on the problem.
Biden backed up his international methane commitment with a flurry of activity here at home. On Tuesday he announced that five federal agencies will issue policies to curb methane. The Department of Agriculture will incentivize farmers to capture and sell methane for fuel and the Environmental Protection Agency is toughening requirements to plug leaky oil and gas wells.
The U.S. also joined the International Methane Emissions Observatory, a just-launched UN Environment Programme initiative to capture real-time data about methane globally. “The fact that the United States has committed to supporting the IMEO is a big step toward bringing the whole world together on having a central database for all methane emissions," said Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp, on the sidelines of COP26.
On top of his methane push, Biden also unveiled a carbon capture moonshot program that will invest in innovative technologies to take carbon directly from the air.
Of course, for all of these polices to be maximally effective and have shelf life beyond the current administration they need to be made into law; right now the more ambitious of Biden’s climate-and-spending bills remains stuck in Congress. Meanwhile, he is being hammered by progressives for not going far enough fast enough to limit the damage being caused by fossil fuels.
Jean Su, energy justice director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the U.S. was wasting time by searching for novel solutions at COP when it hadn’t even done the minimum at home. “President Biden needs nothing more than a pen to halt new fossil fuel leasing on public lands, stop new fossil fuel infrastructure approvals and declare a national climate emergency to end crude oil exports,” she said in a press release.
But in Glasgow, Kerry remains optimistic. He stresses that there are more to the talks than formal pledges. “Here at this COP, in every corner, every day, initiatives are being put forward. Countries are signing on the dotted line," he said Friday, citing side agreements to end deforestation and drive more private capital into green investments.
And he insisted that the U.S. is roaring back after four years under former President Donald Trump: "There are more resources and more commitment from the United States than at any time in our history.”
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