Politicians underestimate methane as a climate killer


While the EU's Fit-for-55 Package includes many important files, the European Commission postponed legislation on methane a particularly potent greenhouse gas to December 2021. This article summarises the issues at stake and argues that without stringent regulation on this gas, the Fit-for-55 Package will fail to reach climate goals.

Teaser Image Caption
Gas flare on top of a flare stack at Preemraff oil refinery, Lysekil, Sweden.

This article is part of our dossier "The EU's Fit-for-55 package: The European Green Deal's fitness test".


Carbon dioxide (CO2) is high up on the climate agenda, but policy makers and the media have too often neglected the second most important greenhouse gas: methane (CH4). In its latest report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that it has already contributed 0.5 degrees to the current global warming. The number for CO2 is just 0.3 degrees higher.: The study by the United Nations Environment Programme and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition "Global Methane Assessment", launched in May 2021, also emphasises the decisive role methane plays in the climate crisis.

While methane stays in the atmosphere for a shorter period, it is over 80 times more potent than CO2 over 20 years. This – and not the still more commonly used 100 years – is the timeframe we should focus on given the shrinking budget of greenhouse gases humanity has left to stay below the Paris Agreement target as well as the looming tipping points, such as thawing permafrost that would in turn release more methane and therefore kicking off self-reinforcing feedback loops. The science is clear: Without a rapid reduction in methane emissions, reaching climate the 1.5 degrees target is extremely unlikely. The European Commission’s own 2030 climate target plan’s impact assessment concluded that the new climate target for 2030, a net reduction of 55%, would require an accelerated effort to tackle methane emissions. Against this background, it is astonishing how little attention methane emissions have received in politics.

EU regulation

The European Commission is working on filling the gap and presented its Methane Strategy in October 2020. It addresses emissions in three sectors that account for up to 95% of global anthropogenic methane emissions: agriculture, energy and waste management. According to the European Commission, in the EU, about half of anthropogenic methane emissions come from agriculture, 26% from waste and 19% from energy. These numbers, however, should be taken with a grain of salt as there has not been constant monitoring until now and the EU Commission relies on outdated data on the global warming potential of methane. It also noteworthy, that the number for energy would be higher if emissions along the supply chain were accounted for: most of the fossil fuels consumed in the EU are imported, and 75-90% of the methane emissions associated with these fuels are emitted before reaching the EU’s borders. The energy sector is the only sector touched by “real action”. Originally planned to be part of the Fit-for-55 package before the 2021 summer break, the EU Methane Regulation for the energy sector did not make it into the series of proposals and is now expected later this year. 

The EU Methane Regulation seeks to improve the availability and accuracy of information on the specific sources of methane emissions associated with energy consumed in the EU, and to put in place EU obligations on companies to mitigate those emissions across different segments of the energy supply chain. The International Energy Agency estimates that roughly 40% of methane emissions in the oil and gas sector could be saved at no-net cost. Venting, flaring and leakage repairing are low-hanging fruit that need stringent legislation as voluntary schemes have so far failed to deliver sufficient results. Introducing methane emissions standards for gas imports would use the EU’s considerable leverage as the world’s biggest gas importer to set global standards to reduce methane levels.

In parallel to the Carbon Border Adjustment (CBAM), the European Commission could also consider the introduction of a methane levy, based on conservative estimates of methane intensity of EU imports of fossil fuels. If companies can proof to be undercutting these estimates, the levy could be reduced accordingly. In addition, there could be a threshold value, above which the import of the natural gas is prohibited – and the threshold should be lowered annually.

The petrochemical sector should also be included in the EU Methane Regulation. According to the International Energy Agency, petrochemicals account for 14% and 8% of total primary demand for oil and gas, respectively, and will become the world’s biggest driver of oil demand. Addressing methane emissions from petrochemical and plastic production would be a critical first step toward reducing the overall climate impact from plastics, estimated to generate 56 gigatons of carbon-dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions by 2050, corresponding to 10-13% of the global carbon budget to stay within a 1.5-degree warming scenario.

However, even with the most stringent regulation in the oil and gas sector, methane emissions will remain an issue. The Scientific Advisory Panel of the Climate and Clean Air Coalition for example estimates that a maximum of 70% of emissions from the fossil fuel sector can be abated. According to this 2017 study natural gas beyond 2035 is not even compatible with the upper Paris target (2 C° warming).  Besides other environmental concerns associated with fossil fuel extraction, mostly in producing countries, as well as uncertain economic prospects, this is a major reason, why the European Commission, together with the EU Member States, must also develop a phase-out plan for a managed decline of fossil gas.

Methane and agriculture

While the Methane Regulation is likely to fall short to deliver the necessary reductions in the energy sector by focusing on improving data availability rather than having clear reduction targets, the EU Methane Strategy does not even include similar legislation for the agricultural sector, most notably intensive livestock farming, the largest contributor to the methane problem in Europe today.  Available mitigation measures that the EU Methane Strategy mentions relate for example to improvement of animal diets, herd management and manure management (notably its use in fertilisers and biogas generation). The document also speaks of “reduction in the number of animals depending on the available land” and “dietary changes” as means to reduce methane emissions, but does not propose concrete action.

Science tells us that more research and monitoring alone will not bring about significant reductions and purely technical measures are no longer sufficient. We need a sustainable transformation in the agricultural sector, especially in animal husbandry. A reduction in herd size with more space per animal reduces emissions from fermentation and manure, and also improves animal welfare. Farmers need support to do so, but the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) still incentivises intensive livestock production both directly and indirectly. Much will now depend on the national strategic plans due to be sent in by the end of the year. Changes could also be possible via the implementation of the European Commission’s Farm to Fork Strategy, even though it remained unambitious in the livestock sector.  Members of the European Parliament in the Agriculture and Environment committees adopted a report on the EU Farm to Fork Strategy on 10 September 2021, to be voted on in the European Parliament plenary session in October 2021, calling on the European Commission to address the issue of overconsumption of meat, both from a public health and an environmental perspective.

Lastly, the EU Methane Strategy seeks to promote biogas from agricultural waste. While this is an opportunity to generate additional incomes for livestock farmers, it also bears the risk to further incentivise large-scale animal production systems rather than reducing the number of animals. In the waste sector, minimising the disposal of biodegradable waste in landfills is crucial to avoid methane formation and the Commission will review relevant legislation on landfill in 2024. Another issue in the waste sector that relates to methane are plastics. Their production and landfill must be reduced. 

Of course, as for all climate relevant policies, international commitments are key. US President Joe Biden plans to invite the world’s largest economies to join an initiative to tackle methane emissions to be launched by November’s COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2021 in Glasgow[1]. This international, and most notably transatlantic component of the issue, may be a reason for the EU Methane Regulation not being part of the initial Fit-for-55 Package. The methane problem of US shale gas exports is well known. Studies that show fracking operations leak, vent, or flare between 2 and 6% of the gas produced. Due to the high global warming potential of methane, this quickly makes this fossil fuel even worse than coal. A recent study showed that some companies in the United States even burned off up to 17 percent of the gas they produced in 2019. The EU imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the United States have increased substantially (by 760 %) after the Trump-Juncker agreement in July 2018. The US are also developing plans to regulate methane, with the US Environmental Protection Agency due to release its proposed rule still this month.

To conclude, it is important to recall what is at stake: the reduction targets to avoid catastrophic climate disaster. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that has a very significant impact on global warming, particularly over the next almost 30 years left to achieve net zero in 2050. However, the EU and its Member States currently use only the 100-year timeframe to calculate the global warming potential of methane as well as outdated numbers to calculate the CO2- equivalents of methane, which leads to a falsified climate impact of methane. It is furthermore important to note that methane’s greenhouse effect is not its only nuisance. It can react with other chemicals in the atmosphere to form ozone and to reduce the amount of “detergent” available to clean other types of pollutants. Acting only on energy (and not even here ambitiously enough) and neglecting the livestock sector is negligent. Methane belongs at the top of the agenda.


[1] This pledge will not address the issue of meat consumption despite farming contributing a large share of the greenhouse gas.