This Feb. 2023 article was published by the International Energy Agency.
We estimate that the global energy sector was responsible for nearly 135 million tonnes of methane emissions in 2022, a slight rise from the amount in 2021. Coal, oil and natural gas operations are each responsible for around 40 Mt of emissions and nearly 5 Mt of leaks from end-use equipment. Around 10 Mt of emissions comes from the incomplete combustion of bioenergy, largely from the traditional use of biomass. The energy sector is responsible for nearly 40 per cent of total methane emissions attributable to human activity, second only to agriculture.
There is a huge opportunity to cut methane emissions from the energy sector. We estimate that around 70 per cent of methane emissions from fossil fuel operations could be reduced with existing technology. In the oil and gas sector, emissions can be reduced by over 75 per cent by implementing well-known measures such as leak detection and repair programmes and upgrading leaky equipment. In the coal sector, more than half of methane emissions could be cut by making the most of coal mine methane utilization, or by flaring or oxidation technologies when energy recovery is not viable.
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 and bring numerous benefits for human health and well-being.
Elevated natural gas prices in 2022 were not enough to drive deep methane reductions
Methane emissions from fossil fuel operations rose to more than 120 Mt in 2022, slightly below the record level seen in 2019. However, increasing efforts to curtail emissions led to a reduction in the amount of methane that was emitted per unit of energy produced globally. Emissions from very large leaks detected by satellite fell by almost 10 per cent in 2022 from the levels detected in 2021 and preliminary estimates indicate that there was also a reduction in natural gas flaring globally.
We estimate that the global average methane intensity of oil and gas production has fallen by around 5 per cent since 2019. Nonetheless, the emissions intensity of production is still far too high and overall emissions are still rising, highlighting that the oil and gas industry needs to move beyond intensity targets and adopt a zero-tolerance approach.
Methane abatement is very cost-effective in the oil and gas sector. Based on average natural gas prices from 2017 to 2021, we estimate that around 40 per cent of methane emissions from oil and gas operations could be avoided at no net cost because the outlays for the abatement measures are less than the market value of the additional gas that is captured. Based on the record gas prices seen around the world in 2022, we estimate that about 80 per cent of the options to reduce emissions from oil and gas operations worldwide could be implemented at no net cost. Around USD 100 billion in investment is required to 2030 to deploy all methane abatement measures in the oil and gas sector. This is less than 3 per cent of the net income received by the oil and gas industry in 2022.
Methane and flaring need to be tackled in tandem
Stopping all non-emergency flaring and venting is the single most impactful measure countries can take to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas operations. There should be minimal methane emissions from a flare if it is designed, maintained and operated correctly but this is not always the case. There are also occasions when flares are totally extinguished, resulting in direct venting to the atmosphere of gas that should be combusted. We estimate that only around 92 per cent of the gas volumes directed into flares around the world are properly combusted (in line with recent studies for the main oil and gas producing regions of the United States indicating a combustion rate of 90-92 per cent). On this basis, we estimate that flaring results in more than 500 Mt of CO2-equivalent annual greenhouse gas emissions, including both CO2 and methane emissions (one tonne of methane is considered to be equivalent to 30 tonnes of CO2 based on the 100-year global warming potential).
More than 260 billion cubic metres (bcm) of natural gas is wasted through flaring and methane leaks globally today. It is unlikely that all of this can be avoided, but with the right policies and on-the-ground implementation on both flaring and methane emissions, an estimated 200 bcm of additional gas could be brought to markets. This volume is greater than the European Union’s natural gas imports from Russia prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Stopping this waste of natural gas would also reduce global temperature rise by nearly 0.1 °C by mid-century. This is the same effect on the global temperature rise as immediately eliminating the GHG emissions from all of the world’s cars, trucks, buses and two- and three-wheeler vehicles.
Active flares from January to September 2022
Very large leaks are a major source of emissions but dwarfed by those from normal oil and gas operations
Satellites detected around 3 Mt of methane from very large leaks from oil and gas operations in 2022. Events were seen in 20 countries and satellites were able to detect and quantify leaks from offshore operations for the first time, including 17 days of emissions from a malfunctioning flare in Mexico and the emissions released after explosions along the Nord Stream gas pipeline.
Preventing and quickly addressing very large leaks is a key opportunity to rapidly reduce methane emissions. The UN Environment Programme recently launched the Methane Alert and Response System, which uses satellites to detect very large leaks and provide timely alerts to operators and regulators. The Oil and Gas Climate Initiative is also operating a satellite-monitoring pilot programme at sites in Iraq, and plans to expand to Kazakhstan, Algeria and Egypt.
But very large leak events are only part of the picture. Globally, normal oil and gas operations emit the equivalent of a Nord Stream size event every single day on average. Efforts to stop very large leak events must therefore go hand-in-hand with measures to reduce emissions from normal operations, such as by replacing leaky equipment and installing emissions control devices.
Coal mine methane emissions are significant and there are many opportunities to reduce them
Coal operations released just over 40 Mt of methane emissions in 2022, around half of which came from China, the world’s largest coal producer. Mitigation measures have been implemented in numerous sites around the world to date but they are not yet standard industry practice. We estimate that nearly 55 per cent of methane emissions from coal mines globally could be avoided with existing technologies.
One of the most effective ways to cut down on coal mine methane is to reduce coal consumption, but deploying mitigation measures should still be a priority, especially given the risk that coal demand remains high in the coming years. Reductions in methane emissions are particularly important for coking coal, mainly used in steel making, which tends to come from underground mines where methane emissions are higher and abatement is more feasible.
The IEA has developed a new coal mine methane regulatory roadmap and toolkit. This is a step-by-step guide to support the development of new and functional regulations on coal mine methane, drawing on experiences with regulations to date and lessons learned across different jurisdictions.
Methane action is gaining momentum
Around 150 countries have now joined the Global Methane Pledge, which aims to reduce methane emissions from human activity by 30 per cent from 2020 levels by 2030. Several countries have also released or are working on national methane action plans to support this. Many of them recently published landmark policies and actions on methane, including Nigeria, Colombia and the United States. Canada and the European Union are expected to issue new methane regulations in 2023. The Joint Declaration from Energy Importers and Exporters on Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Fossil Fuels calls for an international market for fossil energy that minimizes flaring, methane, and CO2 emissions across the supply chain to the fullest extent practicable.
While these are positive developments, emissions are not falling. In the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario methane emissions from fossil fuel operations fall by around 75 per cent by 2030. This results mostly from the rapid deployment of emission-reduction measures and technologies, including a stop to all non-emergency flaring and venting and universal adoption of monthly or continuous leak detection and repair programmes. By 2030, all fossil fuel producers in the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario have an emissions intensity similar to the world’s best operators today.