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Flaring natural gas burns by jack pumps at an oil well near Buford, North Dakota in the Bakken oil fields. (William Campbell/Corbis via Getty Images)

Methane emissions from oil and gas, agriculture and other sources are contributing to thousands more deaths per year from air pollution than previously thought, while simultaneously leading to a rapid increase in global average temperatures, according to a comprehensive new U.N. report.

Why it matters: The report, which is the most thorough study of methane's contribution to global warming, public health ailments, and solutions to date.

  • It shows both the perils involved with continuing to drill and transport oil and natural gas and the range of available low-cost solutions to bring down emissions.

The details: The world would need to cut 40 to 45% of human-caused global methane emissions by 2030 in order to avoid 0.3°C of warming.

  • About 30% of the cuts in methane emissions by 2030 would come from targeted measures, such as containing leaks in natural gas pipelines.
  • Another 15% of the emissions cuts would come from broader efforts to decarbonize the economy, such as turning away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy sources, the report finds.
  • Inge Andersen, executive director of the U.N. Environment Program which co-produced the report, told reporters on a call Thursday morning that it's no longer optional to tackle methane emissions.
  • "Without tackling this we cannot hit 1.5°C and we will certainly overshoot the [2°C target]. So, I think... that this is on the must have list."

The big picture: Methane is a greenhouse gas that, while it is far more ephemeral in the atmosphere compared to carbon dioxide (it only lasts in the air about 10 years, compared to hundreds to a thousand years for a molecule of CO2), is about ten times more potent as a global warming contributor.

  • Methane concentrations have risen rapidly during the past few decades, to record highs that are incompatible with the Paris Agreement's 2°C temperature target relative to the preindustrial era, the report notes.
  • According to the report, there is "strong evidence" that the increases in methane amounts detected since the 2010s were "primarily attributable" to increased emissions from fossil fuel-related activities.
  • This period coincides with the fracking boom and growth in oil and gas production in the U.S. Methane is the main component of natural gas, and the report focuses on leak prevention, detection, and sealing abandoned wells as cost-saving measures that industry could implement.

Of note: The study also finds that there are considerable low cost to money-saving measures that oil and gas companies can take to cut their methane emissions from pipelines, drilling sites, and other facilities.

  • However, it finds that expanding natural gas infrastructure and usage without relying on currently unproven technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere is "incompatible" with limiting global warming to keeping global warming to 1.5°C relative to the preindustrial era.
  • "One thing the report calls for very strongly is not building any more of this fossil fuel infrastructure if we are phasing this out over the next couple of decades," said Drew Shindell, an Earth scientist at Duke University and lead author of the new report.
  • In other words, the report calls into question the popular view in Washington that natural gas is a growing, so-called "bridge fuel" for use until renewables can more reliable supply power to the grid.
  • Other solutions would be employed to cut methane emissions from agriculture and coal sectors.

Context: The study also shows that methane emissions have much more significant health impacts than previously thought.

  • For every million metric tons of methane emissions that's reduced, about 1,430 annual premature deaths would be avoided, researchers found.
  • Methane emissions are a contributor to ground-level ozone pollution, which is a deadly form of air pollution that can aggravate respiratory and cardiovascular disease.

What they're saying: "Of all the short lived climate pollutants, methane has by far the largest current warming impact, accounting for nearly one-fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions, and it is therefore now by far the top priority, short-lived climate pollutant that we need to tackle," said Rick Duke, senior advisor to John Kerry, President Biden's special envoy on climate.

Go deeper

Updated May 5, 2021 - Science

World risks runaway Antarctic ice melt if Paris targets not met

Mountain peaks are seen from NASA's Operation IceBridge research aircraft in the Antarctic Peninsula region, on Nov. 4, 2017, above Antarctica. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

The world runs a growing risk of triggering accelerating and potentially unstoppable sea level rise from the Antarctic ice sheet if greenhouse gas emissions are not strictly curtailed. However, this fate can be avoided if the Paris Agreement's targets are met, according to two new studies published Wednesday.

Why it matters: At stake is the viability of coastal megacities like Shanghai, Manila and New York City, as well as entire nations like the low-lying Maldives. The severity of sea level rise depends largely on the pace and extent of ice melt from the world's two largest ice sheets: Antarctica and Greenland.

Ben Geman, author of Generate
May 5, 2021 - Energy & Environment

The supply crunch that could slow the climate fight

Data: IEA; Chart: Sara Wise/Axios

Soaring amounts of key minerals used in clean energy tech are needed to fight climate change, but costs and supply risks could create big headwinds, a new International Energy Agency analysis finds.

Why it matters: "Today’s mineral supply and investment plans fall short of what is needed to transform the energy sector, raising the risk of delayed or more expensive energy transitions," IEA warns.

Teachers across the U.S. protest laws restricting racism lessons

Thousands of teachers and other educators held protests across the U.S. Saturday against the actions of "at least 15 Republican-led states" that aim to restrict teaching about racism in class, the Washington Post reports.

Driving the news: There were demonstrations in at least 22 cities for the "Day of Action" to raise awareness about moves to limit students' exposure to critical race theory, which links racial discrimination to the nation's foundations and legal system, per Axios' Russell Contreras.