Why curbing methane emissions is crucial in war on climate change

methane emissions and climate change
India is the fourth largest source of methane emissions, the impact of which is 28 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.

Methane, the second most abundant greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide (CO2), is 28 times more powerful than CO2 at warming the atmosphere, and is responsible for almost a quarter of global warming. About 50% of methane emissions globally are due to human activities, largely from agriculture, waste and fossil fuel production and consumption. India is currently the world’s fourth largest methane emitter after China, the United States and Russia, according to the climate data website Climate Watch, managed by the World Resources Institute.

In September 2021, the European Union and the US announced support for a Global Methane Pledge at the Major Economies Forum (MEF) on energy and climate, to be launched at the 26th Conference of Parties (COP26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Glasgow in November 2021. In Glasgow, 103 countries signed the pledge, which, by 2030, targets a 30% cut in methane emissions from 2020 levels. But three of the four biggest methane emitters — India, China and Russia — did not sign the pledge.

The methane pledge was proposed at the MEF and was “outside the ambit” of the UNFCCC and the Paris agreement, India’s Union government said in December 2021, in response to a query in Parliament on why India had not signed the pledge. The pledge, however, was launched and signed at COP26. Further, the Paris Agreement’s target of limiting the rise in global temperatures to 1.5-2°C by 2030 cannot be achieved at a reasonable cost without reducing methane emissions by 40-45% by that year, according to the United Nation Environment Programme’s Global Methane Assessment 2021.

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The UN has urged countries to submit updated and more ambitious climate pledges, which includes cutting greenhouse gases like CO2 and methane, before the two-week COP27 to be held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, starting November 6 this year. It will be difficult, however, for India to make a pledge to cut methane emissions because of the burden it will place on small farmers, both the government and climate researchers have said.

“Methane and nitrous oxide emissions in India are reported largely from the agricultural sector because livestock manure management and agriculture are sources of methane,” Indu Murthy, sector head of climate, environment and sustainability at the Center for Study of Science, Technology & Policy (CSTEP), a Bengaluru-based think-tank, told IndiaSpend.

“The majority of Indian farmers are small and marginal farmers. They are already burdened with challenges due to erratic rainfall patterns, which makes crop productivity unreliable. Burdening them further with a pledge to reduce methane emissions, which means changing the crops or type of farming, is not wise and not fair on people,” said Murthy.

The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) also cited the threat to small farmers’ livelihood in its reasons for not signing up to the methane pledge, and pointed to a number of initiatives it has taken to reduce methane emissions, in the Union Government’s reply to Parliament. These schemes may, however, have limited impact given the scale of India’s methane emissions, experts said. We reached out to the environment ministry for their comments on these schemes and their impact on July 5. We will update when we receive a response.

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The trouble with methane emissions

Methane is the second largest contributor to global warming after CO2. Methane’s impact is short-lived, as it remains in the atmosphere for just about a decade, compared to CO2, whose impact lasts for several decades. Methane, however, has far greater heat trapping capacity than CO2. In 20 years, methane can trap 80 times as much heat as CO2. Over a 100-year time frame, methane is 25 times as potent as CO2, according to the Global Methane Budget 2020.

Methane is produced both naturally and through human activities. In nature, methane is produced when organic materials decay in a low- or no-oxygen environment, such as underwater, or in swamps. Wetlands like the Amazon river basin are the single largest natural contributor to methane emissions, according to studies.

Today, less than half of methane emissions are from natural sources. Human emissions of methane have increased its concentration in the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. Enteric fermentation, the digestive process in cattle, releases methane. Paddy cultivation is another key source of methane. Methane is also found in underground fossil fuel deposits, and is released when these are commercially mined. Fossil fuel production and consumption accounts for 35% of human-caused emissions, waste 20% and agriculture 40%, per UNEP.

India’s methane emissions and mitigation initiative

In India, which has the world’s largest cattle population and is the second largest rice producer, the agriculture sector emits five times as much methane as the energy sector. Agriculture accounts for 61% of total methane emissions, while India’s energy sector accounts for 16.4% and waste 19.8%, per the Global Methane Tracker 2022.

The images below show methane emissions across India from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel 5-P satellite at 1,110-metre resolution. The data are based on an average of five months, from January to May 2022. The sequence of images featured below show the detection of a methane plume across India, segregated sector wise.

Union environment minister of state, Ashwini Kumar Choubey, pointed to multiple initiatives underway with the intent of reducing methane in different sectors, in the government’s December 2021 reply to Parliament. The Galvanising Organic Bio-Agro Resources (Gobar-Dhan) scheme launched in 2018 and the New National Biogas and Organic Manure Programme, implemented from 2017, provide incentives to farmers for cattle waste recovery, used in the production of bio-energy. The National Livestock Mission since 2014 includes feeding livestock with balanced rations which “can help reduce methane emissions from livestock”, Choubey had said.

Several other schemes including Direct Seeded Rice, which uses less water during initial paddy cropping that can reduce methane emissions, and Waste to Energy plants that will generate biogas/biomethane or Bio-CNG from agricultural, urban, industrial and municipal solid waste, etc, that will indirectly reduce methane emissions, were listed in the ministry’s response.

“Such schemes may work in that direction (towards curbing methane emissions), but may have limited impact,” said Murthy.

(Published in an arrangement with IndiaSpend.)