Politics of Poverty

North American methane target is a global win-win

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US President Barack Obama with Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto (left), and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (right), at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Manila, Philippines, on Nov. 19, 2015. They met again this week at the "Three Amigos" Summit in Ottawa, Canada.(Photo: Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

By targeting methane emissions reductions from the oil and gas sector, Canada, Mexico, and the United States are combating climate change and supporting global development goals.

If you’re a fan of win-win outcomes for climate and development—and who isn’t—there’s a lot to like in the communiqué that was released yesterday by North American leaders at this year’s “Three Amigos” Summit.

Of particular note, Mexico officially announced its intention to join Canada and the United States in adopting a target to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 40 to 45 percent (below 2012 levels) by 2025.

Although this announcement isn’t grabbing the summit’s climate-related headlines (that distinction goes to the leaders’ pledge for North America to generate 50 percent of its electricity from clean power sources by 2025), the North American methane target is a big deal for mitigating climate change and for promoting sustainable development locally and globally. Here’s why.

A win for climate

  • Canada, Mexico, and the United States are all among the top emitters of methane from the oil and natural gas sector. Together, they currently produce nearly one-fifth of global oil and gas emissions.
  • Although less abundant than carbon dioxide (CO2), methane is over 80 times more potent at shorter time scales, so reductions of methane in the near-term have an outsized impact on reducing global warming and can help buy time for deeper reductions in CO2. Indeed, if North America achieves its methane goal, it will be like taking about 85 million cars off the road.
  • Addressing methane emissions is critical to achieving all three countries’ climate action plans and raises the bar for the rest of the world to follow suit in pursuing actions to quickly mitigate non-CO2 pollution as well.

A win for development

  • Methane emissions contribute to the formation of tropospheric ozone, a major component of smog. Respiratory conditions, including asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema, can all be exacerbated by the presence of ozone. Children and older adults are particularly susceptible. So significant methane reductions mean we can all breathe a little easier.
  • Ozone can also be toxic to plants. It damages normal functions and has been shown to reduce crop yields. With the challenge of feeding a growing global population, reducing methane is a good start toward ensuring greater food security. Notably, one study even suggests that Mexico can expect a particularly large percentage increase in total crop yields with reductions in methane.
  • Oil and natural gas systems are leaky and methane can escape into the atmosphere across the entire supply chain. One estimate suggests that some $30 billion in revenue is being lost worldwide as a result of methane leakage. That makes no sense. Communities stand to benefit from better regulated methane emissions, and cost-effective solutions to manage leakage exist.

So what’s next? Targets are certainly useful, but don’t actually reduce emissions on their own. Specific actions will need to be outlined, implemented, and evaluated over time—particularly since methane emissions from oil and gas systems are difficult to estimate, though the data are improving.

The United States is out in front of its North American peers, having recently finalized emissions standards for new and modified oil and natural gas systems. But there is critical unfinished business left for all countries in managing methane emissions from existing sources, as was made painfully evident by the Alisa Canyon disaster, which spewed out a whopping 97,000 metric tons of methane over five months.

With this week’s summit, the Three Amigos are setting the right tone on methane. If they can deliver aggressive action now, the benefits will be paying dividends for their citizens and the world for years to come.

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