The United States has announced a major crackdown on methane emissions as part of a new effort by several countries at the Cop28 summit to curb the “super pollutant” that is responsible for turbocharging the climate crisis.
The US has used the climate conference, which is administered by the UN and being held in Dubai, to unveil new regulations it estimates will cut methane emissions from its vast oil and gas industry by 80% from levels that would be expected without the rule, a total of 58m tonnes by 2038.
The rule is the centrepiece of a series of actions by countries at Cop28 to limit methane, which is much shorter-lived in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide but up to 80 times more powerful in heating the Earth. Methane is responsible for about a third of the warming already experienced by the planet and the US is one of the world’s largest emitters.
“Sharp cuts in methane emissions are among the most critical actions the United States can take in the short term to slow the rate of climate change,” said Michael Regan, administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency, which has created the rule.
Regan said the new regulations would cut the equivalent of 1.5bn metric tonnes of carbon dioxide, which is nearly the amount of pollution emitted by the US’s entire power sector, or 28m fossil fuel-powered cars, over the next 15 years. The rule will require oil and gas companies to plug leaks from existing facilities, eliminate routine flaring of gas from wells and to better monitor escaping methane.
“The impact of this historic rule can’t be overstated,” Regan said. “This is what global climate leadership looks like.”
Countries, businesses and donors have raised $1bn in funding to help reduce methane emissions around the world, an update at Cop28 revealed. Angola, Kenya, Romania, Kenya, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have also joined the global methane pledge, an initiative set up by the US and European Union in Scotland at Cop26 with the aim of slashing methane emissions 30% by 2030. More than 150 countries have now signed up.
The inclusion of Turkmenistan in the pledge is particularly significant. The Guardian revealed Turkmenistan’s “mind boggling” methane emissions in May, a move sources said was instrumental in pushing the country to act. The country’s super-emitting leaks are seen as some of the easiest to fix if the country repairs its ageing gas infrastructure.
John Kerry, the US’s climate envoy, said that countries have until now neglected methane and other climate pollutants in favour of focusing upon carbon dioxide. Action on methane will be the “easiest, quickest, fastest, cheapest way to begin to get gains against the warming”, the former US secretary of state said last week.
Progress so far in cutting methane has been mixed, however. French company Kayrros is a data provider for the UN and on Friday released its own open-access map of methane leaks. Since 2019, it has identified more than 5,600 super-emitter events, which can each produce emissions equivalent to millions of car engines.
On Friday, Kayrros released data showing there has been no overall reduction in methane emitted by many of the signatories to the global methane pledge. Australia was one of the few countries to have cut methane recently, while in the US emissions are actually increasing.
Scrutiny of major methane emitters is increasing rapidly through the use of satellite imaging. The UN’s methane alert and response system is now fully operational and has already notified operators of 127 major methane plumes across four continents.
Emissions events will be made public within 75 days of detection from January, effectively naming and shaming the culprits. The system has already had success in Argentina, where 10 methane plumes were spotted near three oil and gas facilities earlier this year. Operators were notified and repaired faulty equipment, stemming the leaks.
The action on methane at Cop28 on Saturday came amid another day of speeches by world leaders at the sprawling Expo City site, which featured long queues as a record number of delegates – more than 84,000 people are registered to attend – filed into a venue toasted by the Middle Eastern sun and shrouded by a haze of pollution.
Pope Francis, suffering with bronchitis, was not in attendance, with a Vatican official instead delivering his message that harm to the environment is an “offence against God”. He added: “To all of you I make this heartfelt appeal: Let us choose life. Let us choose the future.”
Other developments on the third day of Cop28 included the US joining a group of countries that have promised to build no new coal plants, and Colombia becoming the 10th country, and one of the only oil producers, to join a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty.
More than 100 countries have now signalled support for a fossil fuel phase-out to be part of the Cop28 agreement, although there is some resistance to the idea among major oil- and gas-extracting nations.
The oil and gas industry itself needs to switch to renewable energy or face steep economic decline, the head of the International Energy Agency warned on Saturday. The sector is investing just 2.5% of its capital into renewable energy, a trend that Fatih Birol said was insufficient.
“I very much hope we will see a strong signal to energy markets that fossil fuel use needs to decline,” Birol told the Guardian.
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