One of the most significant outcomes of next week’s COP26 climate summit may be a pledge by dozens of countries to cut emissions of methane, the superpotent greenhouse gas. That will require the U.K. hosts to do some major cleaning up at home.
Britain is the source of some of Europe’s worst methane emissions, according to the nonprofit Clean Air Task Force. The group used a special infrared camera to detect supersized leaks at two sites operated by National Grid Plc outside London. They were the largest releases found among 200 sites in 12 nations. CATF also discovered plumes from 13 British oil wells, and regular discharges at the Bacton Gas Plant operated by Royal Dutch Shell Plc.
“Everywhere we go, we’re finding leaks and intentional venting of emissions into the atmosphere,” said Jonathan Banks, Clean Air Task Force’s international director for super pollutants. “We shouldn’t be seeing these kinds of large emission sources at sites like this. But it is happening.”
Learn more about the planet-warming power of methane:
Tackling methane emissions is one of the rare climate solutions that doesn’t require advances in technology. Oil and gas companies have the tools they need right now to stem leaks, which can be done within days of being detected. Engineers often release methane — either by burning it or by venting it straight into the air — while doing maintenance work. The gas can also be captured and sold, or stored underground.
National Grid said that the leaks detected by CATF were caused primarily by maintenance activities and that the company is working to cut methane emissions as a part of its plan to reach net-zero by 2050. Shell declined to comment.
Methane, the main component of natural gas, traps as much as 80 times more heat than carbon dioxide in its first two decades in the atmosphere. It also degrades much more quickly, meaning emissions reductions can make a huge difference to global warming. The methane pact that’s being pushed at COP26 seeks to cut global emissions at least 30% from 2020 levels by the end of the decade, potentially reducing global temperatures by 0.2 degrees Celsius by midcentury.
With gas prices soaring due to heavy demand as the global economy recovers from the pandemic, companies and governments should be incentivized to limit leaks coming from oil and gas facilities, according to CATF. The group estimates that enough gas is being lost in Britain to heat over 700,000 homes, assuming a 1.2% leak rate.
“Considering that cutting methane pollution is our best bet to avoid significant warming in the next 20 years, it’s spectacular how much natural gas is being released into the atmosphere,” said James Turitto, who captured the imagery for CATF.
CATF and other organizations that track methane leaks have shown that companies are willing to take action when they are told about fugitive releases. For example, Austrian company OMV AG has said it’s willing to work with non-governmental organizations to find and repair leaky equipment after being shown evidence of discharges from its infrastructure.
The European Union is expected to propose legislation later this year that steps up monitoring and reporting standards for methane, and has signaled it will take measures tackle emissions embedded within imports. Russia, a key exporter of the fuel to the bloc, hasn’t yet signed up to the global methane pledge but has shown interest in doing so, according to the U.S., who proposed the plan alongside the EU.
“The methane pledge is great but it doesn’t mean anything if countries don’t sit down and start putting together policies to achieve the reductions they have pledged to do,” Banks said. “It’s not rocket science, it’s basic plumbing. We can tackle this problem.”
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