Kerry’s Secret to Sealing a Global Methane Deal: Lower the Bar
As the U.S. and European Union sought to recruit nations in a first-ever pact to slash the world’s methane emissions, America’s climate envoy John Kerry kept his sales pitch simple.
Signing the pledge, released at the COP26 climate summit Tuesday, would amount to shared recognition of the problem posed by the potent greenhouse gas — not a “burden” to cut individual emissions, Kerry said.
“You’re not pledging that you’re going to get X percentage — 10, 20, 30%, 40%,” Kerry told countries during a ministerial on the effort last month. “You’re pledging that you’re going to be part of a global effort to have a global reduction of 30%.”
The result is a pledge that isn’t binding on the nations that sign it. They are under no obligation to cut their own methane emissions by a set amount, just to “commit to a collective goal of reducing global methane emissions by at least 30% from 2020 levels by 2030” and to pursue the best available approaches to quantify the problem, according to an EU-U.S. release.
That’s lowered the bar for 105 nations — including cattle-rich Brazil — to sign on. Though the country is joining the methane agreement, the latest document detailing its environmental measures doesn’t include any policies on limiting releases of the gas.
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The approach, like the Paris Agreement, tacitly recognizes that one-size-fits-all targets aren’t suitable for countries at different levels of development.
Large oil and gas producers, such as the U.S. and Canada, can deploy effective, relatively inexpensive technology to plug industry leaks today. But for France, Brazil and other countries whose methane emissions are largely tied to livestock and harder to cull, reductions would be slower. “Countries have widely varying methane emissions profiles and reduction potential, but all can contribute to achieving the collective global goal through additional domestic methane reduction and international cooperative actions,” the EU and U.S. said in a joint statement.
Despite the low bar for entry, the EU and U.S. weren’t able to convince super-polluters Russia and China to back the pact. Countries in the agreement now represent 15 of the world’s top 30 emitters, including Indonesia, Pakistan, Argentina, Mexico, Nigeria, Iraq, Vietnam and Canada.
The pledge represents the first international political commitment to take on methane, which pound-for-pound has 84 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after it’s released. If the target is fulfilled, it would prevent 0.2 degrees Celsius of warming. Still, it’s only a first step. To be compatible with limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels, the reduction level has to be closer to 45%, according to a United Nations report.
EU and U.S. officials who worked on the initiative expect it to develop more teeth and accountability, with annual efforts to take stock of reductions toward the 2030 reduction target.
Mark Brownstein, senior vice president of energy at the Environmental Defense Fund, said methane measurements by private groups and the UN's new International Methane Emissions Observatory will be critical to holding signers accountable. That "will provide us with the data we need to assess whether commitments and plans result in actual emissions reductions," he said.
The initial work was getting countries to sign up and ensuring “we have the strongest possible launch of this global methane pledge at COP26,” said Rick Duke, White House liaison for the special presidential envoy for climate change. Then, he said, the focus will shift to implementation, with the expectation for annual ministerials taking stock of progress.
Countries joining the pact can expect intensifying pressure to live up to their methane-cutting goals, even without penalties for failure.
We’re “seeking to use this as a way to encourage more investment, encourage more policy progress,” Duke said at an Oct. 9 event by Clean Air Task Force and the New Statesman.
At the unveiling Tuesday, Kerry responded to questions that the pledge was toothless, saying that the countries that joined can expect to be held to account if they fall short.
“In most of this, it's peer pressure and public scrutiny and humiliation and other things that act as incentives,” he said. “This is not even a hugely expensive thing. It's what I would call low-hanging fruit, and it hasn't been plucked until now. We have an ability here to have a profound impact.”
And there's a whole ecosystems of groups "ready to sprint into action" with monitoring and philanthropic support, said Sarah Smith, head of the super pollutants program at the Clean Air Task Force.
"This pledge, anchored at the head of state level opens the door," she said. "It's taking place at the level of prime ministers and presidents who are recognizing that methane reduction is the most effective strategy to global warming now."
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