The Global Methane Pledge (GMP), officially launched today at COP26, is the first international climate pact to tackle methane emissions. One hundred-and-five countries have signed up to the EU and US-led pledge, which commits to cutting methane emissions by 30% by 2030 from 2020 levels. The signatories represent almost half of global methane emissions and 70% of global GDP, and include major emitters such as the US, Canada, Nigeria, Iraq, Brazil and Saudi Arabia. But the deal fails to address emissions from the agriculture sector, while three key emitters – Russia, China and India – have not signed up.

Methane has caused 30% of the rise in global temperatures since pre-industrial times, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), trapping as it does over 80 times more heat than CO2 in its first twenty years. Agriculture (40%), fossil fuels (35%) and waste (20%) are the main culprits.

And despite the fact that the UN Global Methane Assessment has made it abundantly clear that reducing human causes of methane is the most cost-effective strategy in limiting global warming, international efforts to cut emissions have, to date, focused almost entirely on CO2. Indeed ahead of COP26, G20 leaders failed to commit to the methane pledge, despite acknowledging that reducing methane emissions is one of the cheapest, quickest and most feasible ways to limit climate change.

But all that changed with the GMP. Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA, said fulfilling the pledge over the next 10 years will be equivalent to “switching all cars, trucks and ships of the world to zero-emission technology”. The EU and US even announced additional financial and technical support for the implementation of the pledge, while twenty global philanthropies committed USD 328 million to support scaling up methane mitigation strategies globally.

Cutting emissions from oil and gas is the easy bit

The energy sector accounts for a third of global methane emissions, with the natural gas supply chain accounting for three-quarters of the total. The climate impact of the oil and gas sector is increased by methane leaks during production, transportation and distribution – known as fugitive emissions.

But these are relatively easy to address – a 75% cut in methane emissions from oil and gas operations by 2030 is possible with existing technology at near-zero cost, according to the IEA. For example, fixing the leaks from the US’s largest oil field – the Permian basin – will save 55 tonnes each hour, equivalent to 5.5% of the country’s entire oil and gas methane emissions, according to NASA.

To this end, President Biden today announced two new methane rules. The EPA proposed new regulations to monitor methane leaks from existing and new oil and gas wells, pipelines and other equipment, while the Department of Transportation will update rules on addressing leaks from pipelines. Canada has also made tackling methane a priority, having announced plans to cut emissions from the oil and gas sector by 75% by 2030 from 2012 levels. Today, President Trudeau said Canada is the first major oil and gas country to follow the IEA’s recommendations.

The EU, which has a roadmap for reducing methane emissions from gas imports, also got in on the act. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said today the commission will propose new regulations next month, including new measures to limit venting and flaring.

In stark contrast, Russia, whose oil and gas industry emitted the most methane (12.9 million tonnes) globally in 2020, with Gazprom’s methane emissions alone exceeding the annual carbon footprint of Paris, snubbed the GMP. Climate envoy Ruslan Edelgeriyev said it would be more expensive to cut methane emissions from oil and gas operations in Russia.

A missed opportunity for the agriculture sector

Although welcoming the pledge, environmental groups said it fails to address agriculture. Despite being the largest source of methane emissions, the sector has effectively been given a free pass to keep emitting, meaning the pledge misses out “a key piece of the climate puzzle and the significant environment and health benefits that an adoption of healthier, plant-based diets could bring”, said Nusa Urbancic, campaign director at the Changing Markets Foundation.

The pledge focuses on quick technical fixes with limited potential to reduce emissions. Technical measures such as animal feed supplements can only cut 20% of sectoral methane emissions annually by 2030, according to the UN. Yet behavioural measures can deliver far greater reductions – up to 57% by 2030. These include encouraging healthier diets or tackling food waste, which are not included in the pledge. While a number of countries with significant agricultural emissions have committed to the deal, including Brazil, Canada, Argentina, New Zealand, the US and the EU, the emphasis on energy means that agriculture is at best an afterthought. Ultimately, its omission could undermine the potential of the pledge.