The Climate Issue: Chinas push for net zero

With President Donald Trump pushing a pro-coal, anti-climate agenda and systematically dismantling the environmental policies of his predecessor, Barack Obama, the expectation has long been that the European Union and China would have to take the global lead in limiting carbon emissions. The Economist

October 19TH 2020

The Climate Issue

The best of our climate-change analysis, delivered every fortnight

The stripes on our banner were developed by Ed Hawkins of the University of Reading. They represent the years from 1850 to 2018 and the colour marks each year’s temperature, compared with the average in 1971-2000.

Carbon dioxide gets all the attention when it comes to greenhouse-gas emissions, and with good reason: it accounts for roughly three-quarters of all global emissions. Methane, accounting for roughly one-sixth, comes in second place. But the volumes belie its importance. Carbon dioxide can stay in the atmosphere for centuries before it is reabsorbed by vegetation and the oceans, whereas methane remains for years or decades. During that time, methane has a much greater warming influence on the climate—83 to 87 times greater than carbon dioxide over 20 years.

Between a quarter and a third of methane emissions escape from the fossil-fuel industry, including from leaky installations and pipes. Patching these up has long been seen as “low-hanging fruit” in efforts to stem emissions. So the European Union’s plans, published last week, to require oil and gas companies to report and fix methane leaks is a step in the right direction. Just how big (or small) a step that is will not be clear until next year, when legislative proposals are due.

For many, that is slow progress. The plans coincided with reports that the number of methane leaks spied world-wide by a European satellite during the first eight months of this year was a third greater than between January and August 2019. The president of Kayrros, the company that collected the data, has blamed the increase on cost-cutting . Many of the new leaks were in Algeria, Russia and Turkmenistan, where the number rose by more than 40% in 12 months. Still, the EU strategy opens the door to setting methane-emission standards or creating incentives for foreign oil and gas firms to fix their leaks before exporting to Europe. That would be a significant development.

Fixing leaks is one task. A bigger challenge is how to reform industries whose very existence relies on burning fossil fuels. I recommend a read of our excellent in-depth look at the state of the global shipping industry. The sector emits 2.5% of global greenhouse gases (more than Germany, and more than twice as much as Britain or France) and is known as a “hard-to-abate” industry—there are no obvious solutions for how to run a global shipping fleet without relying on fossil fuels.

Catherine Brahic
Environment Editor

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