Gas leaks, landfills and cow burps: Why methane is having a moment

Whether COP26 was a fillip or flop will be debated for weeks to come. But the two-week long Glasgow summit managed to do something others did not: recognise that carbon dioxide isn’t the only greenhouse gas in town.

Cow in a field Cutting methane emissions could be simpler than slashing carbon dioxide emissions. Photograph: Steve Cole/Getty Images

Methane accounts for 17% of greenhouse gas emissions, is up to 80 times more potent at warming than carbon dioxide (over 20 years) and has accounted for around 30% of global warming since the pre-industrial era. 

“Cutting methane gives us time,” said Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development and a lead reviewer for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in an interview with The Guardian back in August. 

That’s when the warnings about methane started to snowball. The IPCC’s sixth report around the same time detailed the benefits of tackling the potent greenhouse gas.

And the pressure paid off. One of the first – and possibly most significant – announcements at COP26 was a ‘global methane pledge’. The 105 countries signed up (far more than expected) all agreed that keeping warming to within two degrees, let alone 1.5, means “significant” reductions in methane within the next decade. The target is a 30% cut by 2030 against 2020 levels.

Is it ambitious? Not really. Previous assessments by the United Nations Environment Programme suggest 45% is possible with relatively little effort or investment. Research led by the Environmental Defence Fund (EDF) and published in the journal Environmental Research Letters offered 57% as achievable using available technologies. “… these actions to reduce methane emissions will have near-immediate effects in lowering global-mean temperatures,” the authors wrote. 

So, how do you cut methane? First, you fix leaking pipes (methane is the main component of natural gas) and capture more of it from flaring and landfills (the added incentive here is that it has a value as a commodity). Then you look at the harder-to-reach fruit in agriculture – the burping livestock. 

“Gas leaks are probably the easiest ones to fix compared with the other anthropogenic sources of methane,” explained Rebecca Fisher from the Royal Holloway University of London. Last month, Fisher made the front page of the FT after a mobile monitoring campaign around Glasgow identified a large leak of methane from a gas pipeline near the Ibrox football stadium. Such leaks are an own goal – financially and environmentally. They can be identified and dealt with in a matter of days – but haven’t been seen as a priority. 

Maybe they will be now. The Clean Air Task Force also published images just ahead of COP26 showing methane pollution at 24 of the 30 UK oil and gas sites they visited. “Considering that cutting methane pollution is our best bet to avoid significant warming in the next 20 years, it’s spectacular how much natural gas is being released into the atmosphere,” said CATF’s James Turitto. 

Expect much more monitoring of these leaks from campaigners – not least because official statistics in some countries, like the US, could considerably underestimate the amount of gas escaping.

In the UK, these so-called ‘fugitive’ methane emissions have been falling thanks to improvements in the gas networks and reduced coal mining activity (another major source of methane). Methane emissions from energy supply were 34.4MtCO2e in 1990 but 5.4MtCO2e in 2019, according to statistics compiled by the department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Of the current emissions, 65% (3.5MtCO2e) are from exploration, production and transport of gas, with another 19% (1MtCO2e) from flaring or venting at offshore oil and gas sites.

That 5.4MtCO2e represents only 10% of UK methane emissions. Indeed, holes in pipes won’t be the focus in this country – it’ll be holes in the ground and cows in the fields.

Waste management accounts for 17MtCO2e, or 31% of UK methane emissions. Of that, the lions’ share (14.2MtCO2e) comes from landfill. That is 76% less than in 1990 (60.2MtCO2e), mainly thanks to the landfill tax and the requirement to meet the biodegradable municipal waste targets set out in the EU Landfill Directive. But the sector wants to go further. “It’s all about removing organics from landfill,” explains Adam Read, external affairs director at Suez.

The UK Government, as part of its net-zero strategy, has said it wants to “explore options for the near elimination of biodegradable municipal waste to landfill from 2028”. There will be £295m up for grabs to help local authorities roll out free separate food waste collections for all households from 2025. 

However, the Committee on Climate Change wants to see biodegradable municipal waste banned from landfill by 2025. That’s the new deadline in Scotland where the original target had been 2021. Removing food waste from landfill is, it seems, easier said than done. Banning material from landfill is just one piece of the puzzle, suggests Jacob Hayler, executive director at the Environmental Services Association (ESA), which represents large waste contractors. Bans “place pressure on other strategies and treatment infrastructure to avoid and treat these waste streams – which wider resources and waste policy must reconcile and support”, he adds. 

ESA’s members have committed to remove any remaining organics from landfill by 2030 as part of the sector’s net-zero strategy. They have also promised to raise average gas capture rates at landfill sites to 85% by 2030 (from a current industry average of around 70%). 

Most modern landfills have sophisticated gas extraction systems designed into them in line with the requirements of the landfill directive. Retrofitting older and closed landfills is often expensive and uneconomic, so capturing methane from those is “unlikely to happen without some form of government support”, says Ray Parmenter, head of technical and policy at the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM).

There is also a danger that the end of the Renewables Obligation (possibly sometime later this decade) will reduce the incentive to capture methane at landfills to convert it into electricity. “We’re keen to work with DEFRAand the Environment Agency to ensure that policy and regulation support landfill decarbonisation,” says Hayler.

The agriculture sector appears less enthused by the prospect of policies to minimise methane. The National Farmers Union (NFU) points to a “priority list” that emerged from COP26 for tackling worldwide emissions of the gas. “The global methane pledge will cause concern in its name, but it is primarily focused on fracking, oil and coal sites,” the union’s president Minette Batters told the Farmers Weekly podcast. Perhaps globally; but not in the UK.

Here, agriculture is responsible for 47% of methane emissions (25.2MtCO2e), with most coming from cattle (16.4MtCO2e) and sheep (4.2MtCO2e) via enteric fermentation (those burps). The sector has also struggled to curb emissions – in the past three decades they have fallen just 13%, which follows a trend of “decreasing livestock numbers”, according to BEIS. 

But farming is clearly a sector the government is loath to legislate. The idea of less meat and milk is hard to swallow so the focus will be on changing feeds in order to cut emissions. Those signing the global pledge will be “seeking abatement of agricultural emissions through technology innovation” with no mention of consumption. This might not be enough, according to the government’s advisors at the Climate Change Committee.

Indeed, deeper reductions mean lower temperatures (air quality also improves too). Hit 45% are you are talking about preventing a 0.3 degree rise by 2045; the 30% agreed at COP26 represents 0.2 degrees (not to be sniffed at given post-COP analysis of where temperatures could be heading). 

Methane “is an amazing place to start”, EDF’s Ilissa Ocko told National Geographic. Her colleague Matt Watson told Time: “I’ve never seen another situation where an issue this important went from a complete back-burner issue to the front burner almost overnight.”

With low costs and quick environmental paybacks it is hardly surprising that leaders were more easily enticed by methane cuts than, say, keeping fossil fuels in the ground. But efforts to manage methane should not distract from the main driver of global warming – fossil CO2 emissions. 

Some experts have a niggling concern that politicians have embraced methane and forgotten about carbon. Michelle Cain from the University of Oxford is one of them. “If we stopped fossil extraction and use by 2030, the global methane pledge would be achieved at the same time as eliminating most anthropogenic CO2 emissions,” she wrote in a blog for The Conversation. “It’s that simple.”

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