September 30, 2023

Flames emerged from a blazing pit near a well in the Bakken oil field. The main component of natural gas is methane, which is odorless when it emerges directly from the gas well. In addition to methane, natural gas typically also contains other hydrocarbons such as ethane, propane, butane and pentanes.

Orjan F. Ellingvag | Corbis News | Getty Images

A landmark United Nations report stated that drastic reductions in methane emissions, a key component of natural gas, are needed to avoid the worst effects of global climate change.

The report, released Thursday by the Climate and Clear Coalition and the UN Environment Program, represents a postponement of the global conversation on how best to tackle the climate crisis, which has focused on longer-term carbon reductions.

Methane is 84 times more potent than carbon and doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere before it is broken down. This makes it an important goal to reduce global warming faster while reducing other greenhouse gases.

More than half of global methane emissions come from oil and gas production in the fossil fuel industry. Landfills and wastewater from the waste sector; and animal emissions from manure and enteric fermentation in agriculture.

The world could cut methane emissions by up to 45%, or 180 million tons per year, this decade, according to the United Nations global methane assessment. Such a goal will avoid warming nearly 0.3 degrees Celsius by 2045 and help limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, a goal of the Paris Climate Agreement.

The report comes after methane emissions rose to record highs last year despite global lockdowns during the coronavirus pandemic, according to research by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Methane emissions have increased faster than ever since records began in the 1980s.

“Methane reduction is the most powerful lever we need to slow climate change over the next 25 years and complements the efforts needed to reduce carbon dioxide,” Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Program, said in a statement.

“The benefits to society, the economy and the environment are numerous and far outweigh the costs,” said Andersen. “We need international cooperation to urgently reduce methane emissions as much as possible in this decade.”

The fossil fuel industry has the greatest potential to reduce global emissions at low or negative cost by repairing leaks in the oil and gas infrastructure, the report said. Companies that prevent leaks and intercept methane could benefit while containing methane releases.

CNBC policy

Read more about CNBC’s political coverage:

The report also highlighted the health benefits of reducing methane, which is responsible for generating ground-level ozone, a dangerous air pollutant.

Reducing methane emissions by 45% would prevent 255,000 premature deaths, 775,000 asthma-related hospital visits, and 73 billion man hours of extreme heat and 26 million tons of crop losses per year, according to the report.

“We have to fight emissions not only from the energy sector, but also from landfills, agriculture and disused coal mines,” said Jutta Paulus, Member of the Greens in the European Parliament, in a statement.

“If we set aside earmarked funds for these super emitters, it will be money well invested to meet our climate goals in 2030,” said Paulus.

A new study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters also said reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas sector, agriculture, and other human sources could slow global warming by up to 30%.

Oil and gas extraction, processing and distribution account for 23% of emissions, while coal mining accounts for around 12% of emissions, the report said. Manure and enteric fermentation emissions from agriculture and animal husbandry account for around 32% of methane emissions.

CNBC has asked the American Petroleum Institute, the largest trading group in the oil and gas industry, and the American Farm Bureau Federation, a lobby group for the US agricultural sector, to comment on the UN report.

Countries like Russia, France and Argentina called for the containment of methane emissions at the global market leaders’ climate summit hosted by President Joe Biden last month.

In the US, the Senate recently restored an Obama-era ordinance aimed at reducing methane emissions from oil and gas fields by requiring companies to monitor and repair methane leaks from pipelines, storage facilities and wells.