Fire burns atop an industrial chimney against a red evening sky.

Methane flaring converts the gas into carbon dioxide, but different countries regulate it in different ways. Image © Alexisaj/Shutterstock.

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Lack of methane emissions control threatens climate change action

Over 85% of emissions of a potent greenhouse gas aren't being regulated.

Bringing methane under control would help to mitigate against some of the worst effects of climate change, and bring down the world's temperature rise.

Methane is being overlooked in the battle against climate change.

Levels of the greenhouse gas, which is significantly more damaging to the climate than carbon dioxide, are rising at their fastest levels in over 40 years. It's estimated that methane alone has caused the planet to warm by over half a degree centigrade.

Despite the gas's impact on the climate, a new paper has revealed that just 13% of the greenhouse gas is currently regulated by the world's governments. Even where policies do exist, their effectiveness in stopping its release have been questioned.

Dr Paul Balcombe, a co-author of the research from Queen Mary, University of London, said, 'Although accurately monitoring emissions is not easy, it's shocking to see that most methane emissions aren't regulated when they contribute so heavily to global warming.'

'Our chances of reaching global climate targets are slim if this goes unchecked.'

While methane's contribution to climate change is high, so is the potential to slash its emissions. Low-cost measures could cut releases by 20% by the end of the decade, while eating less meat, using more renewable energy, and cutting food waste could reduce emissions by another 15%.

'The good news is that there's an enormous opportunity to limit warming in the short term if we act fast to get on top of methane emissions,' Paul adds. 'We urgently need tighter regulation on better monitoring of methane and concrete actions towards reduction measures.'

The findings of the research were published in the journal OneEarth

Trucks wind their way through a dusty coal mine.

Coal mining is one of the major sources of methane emissions. Image © OVKNHR/Shutterstock.

Why are methane emissions an issue?

Though carbon dioxide is the most talked about greenhouse gas, it's not the most powerful. Other gases, such as CFCs, can trap thousands of times more heat but are generally produced in small amounts.

Methane isn't quite as damaging as these gases, but is produced in much larger volumes. Over 20 years it traps around 80 times as much heat as an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide, dropping to around 25 times over a century.

The reason for this difference over time is because of how methane behaves. It immediately begins to trap heat on being released, but only stays in the atmosphere for around 12 years.

Carbon dioxide, in comparison, stays in the atmosphere for centuries, allowing it to close the gap in warming over longer periods of time.

While efforts to clamp down on carbon dioxide emissions have been underway for decades, the same isn't true of methane. It's often found as a by-product of processes in various industries, meaning it hasn't always been well-studied.

Meanwhile, one of the largest sources of methane is from the stomach of ruminant animals like cows as they digest food. While efforts are being made to improve the situation, measuring these emissions remains difficult.

It's also hard to combat the third of methane emissions which come from natural sources, such as wetlands. While they are natural carbon sinks, a warming world causes these environments to release an increasing amount of methane.

To assess how countries were responding to the problem, researchers searched for as many methane laws and regulations as they could find. They found that the response to methane is currently nowhere near enough to tackle the scale of the problem.

A horned cow with the sun behind in stands among a herd in a field.

Changing what cows are fed could help to reduce their emissions. Image © Gatien GREGORI/Shutterstock.

Clamping down on methane

In total, the scientists found 281 different laws and regulations for the release of methane in different regions of the world. The majority were found in North America, Europe, and southeast Asia, though language barriers meant the researchers may have overlooked those found in some other regions.

While the number of regulations have been growing over time, some areas are more strongly represented than others. The majority of policies tend to focus on the waste sector, rather than other sources such as fossil fuel extraction.

Though this sector is often highly regulated about what is allowed during the extraction and production of these fuels, there is limited control over what happens to mines and wells after resource extraction ends. If they're not sealed, these abandoned sites can continue to produce methane for many years. While the USA has recently begun sealing old wells around the country, more nations will need to follow in its footsteps.

It's not just an issue of a lack of regulations, but also those based on outdated information. For instance flaring - where waste methane is burnt to reduce its warming potential - was assumed to be 98% effective. However, a study published last year demonstrated that this process wasn't as efficient as had been assumed, meaning methane emissions were as much as 10% higher than thought.

That said, the potential to begin turning the tide on methane emissions is high. If all current mitigation methods were put in place, methane emissions could drop by as much as 44% by 2030. This would give the world a much better chance of staying within 1.5⁰C of warming.

Eliminating the rest of the emissions won't be as easy, and will need significant investment to create new ways of cutting methane. In agriculture, for instance, research is underway to see how different food supplements could cut the emissions of cows.

While further research is needed to address the issue of methane in its entirety, the researchers are unequivocal that we need to start taking steps to reduce its emissions now.

Maria Olczak, a PhD student and lead author of the paper, says, 'Methane reduction is still perceived as a choice rather than a necessary step alongside carbon dioxide reduction to combat global warming. With so many different sources, there needs to be stronger social support and the political will to act.'

'Our review highlights the value of setting policies that are predictable and clear for the industry. They will aid effective investment decisions aligned with the long-term climate mitigation goals, including the decrease in emission intensity and in production across developed and developing economies.'