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IEA Says Global Energy Sector Should Work Harder to Reduce Fossil Fuel Emissions

March 1, 2023
The sector responsible for nearly 40% of total global methane emissions attributable to human activity is being asked to step up to the plate and do more to reduce that percentage.

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It’s been about a year since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) threw down the gauntlet, effectively challenging the global energy sector to change its ways in an attempt to throttle the world’s use of fossil fuels. 

“Having the right policies, infrastructure and technology in place to enable changes to our lifestyles and behavior can result in a 40-70% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050,” the IPCC said in an April 2022 announcement. “This offers significant untapped potential. The evidence also shows that these lifestyle changes can improve our health and wellbeing.”

For this to happen, the IPCC said fossil fuel emissions would have to be cut in half within 11 years. With this goal achieved, global warming would effectively be limited to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. At the time, the IPCC said limiting global warming was going to require “major transitions” in the energy sector. “This will involve a substantial reduction in fossil fuel use, widespread electrification, improved energy efficiency and use of alternative fuels (such as hydrogen),” the IPCC explained.

Fast-forward to 2023 and it looks like there’s still much work to be done in order for IFCC’s vision of halving the world’s fossil fuel emissions over the next 10 years to be met. In fact, the International Energy Association (IEA) says global methane emissions remained “stubbornly high” in 2022 even as “soaring energy prices made actions to reduce them cheaper than ever.”

In its Global Methane Tracker 2023, IEA says the global energy sector’s total methane emissions rose to nearly 135 Megatonnes (Mts, or one million tonnes) in 2022. It estimates that the sector was responsible for nearly 135 million tonnes of methane emissions during that 12-month period compared to the prior year. This is roughly in line with 2021’s numbers and 5% higher than emissions in 2020, when the world was in the midst of what IEA calls the “Covid-induced decline.”

Rising Global Temps

Methane is responsible for around 30% of the rise in global temperatures since the Industrial Revolution, and rapid and sustained reductions in methane emissions are key to limiting near-term global warming and improving air quality.

As a whole, the energy sector is responsible for nearly 40% of total methane emissions attributable to human activity, second only to agriculture, according to the IEA.

It says coal, oil and natural gas operations are each responsible for around 40 Mts of emissions and nearly 5 Mt of leaks from end-use equipment, according to the IEA. Around 10 Mts of emissions comes from the incomplete combustion of bioenergy, largely from the traditional use of biomass.

“Our new Global Methane Tracker shows that some progress is being made but that emissions are still far too high and not falling fast enough – especially as methane cuts are among the cheapest options to limit near-term global warming. There is just no excuse,” said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol in a press release. “The Nord Stream pipeline explosion last year released a huge amount of methane into the atmosphere. But normal oil and gas operations around the world release the same amount of methane as the Nord Stream explosion every single day.”

Ways to Cut Emissions 

In its report, the IEA says that halting all non-emergency flaring and venting of methane is the most impactful measure that countries can take in helping to rein in emissions. Around 260 billion cubic meters (bcm) of methane is currently lost to the atmosphere each year from oil and gas operations, it says.

“Three-quarters of this could be retained and brought to market using tried and tested policies and technologies,” the IEA explains in its report. “The captured methane would amount to more than the European Union’s total annual gas imports from Russia prior to the invasion of Ukraine.”

The IEA also says that tackling emissions from fossil fuels is not the only opportunity to cut methane emissions. “Achieving universal access to clean cooking and modern heating would cut emissions from the incomplete combustion of bioenergy,” it adds, “and bring numerous benefits for human health and well-being.”

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