U.S. and Europe agree to slash methane emissions as Biden tells world 'time is running out' on climate change

·Senior Climate Editor
·3-min read

In an effort to tackle the low-hanging fruit in fighting climate change, President Biden and the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, announced a joint pledge to cut methane emissions by at least 30 percent by 2030 and urged other nations to join them.

“This will not only reduce the rate of global warming, but it will also produce a very valuable side benefit, like improving public health and agricultural output,” Biden said Friday from the White House.

Methane is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas and is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. However, it also cycles out of the atmosphere much more quickly than CO2, meaning that cutting methane emissions delivers a lot more bang for the buck in the immediate future. (Methane is a major component of natural gas, but it has a much stronger warming effect when it escapes into the atmosphere than when it is burned.)

President Biden on Friday at a meeting of the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate at the White House.
President Biden on Friday at a meeting of the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate at the White House. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Methane currently accounts for 10 percent of U.S. emissions, but it is also relatively easier to reduce than CO2. Most methane emissions come from leakage in oil and gas wells, pipelines and processing plants, and they are growing rapidly because of the boom in gas and oil drilling from a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Recent studies have found that the rate of methane leakage is much higher than originally assumed: As much as 3.7 percent of the gas being drilled is escaping. Fixing those leaks doesn’t require new technology, and it can actually save fossil fuel companies money, since they can sell the gas they don’t lose.

Earlier this month, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan said his agency will propose a strict rule on methane leakage for new oil and gas wells. To meet the U.S.’s own pledge, the EPA would then have to make a rule for existing infrastructure as well.

The Harris Cattle Ranch feedlot, on California's Interstate 5, is the state's largest producer of beef, and can produce 150 million pounds of beef a year.
The Harris Cattle Ranch feedlot, on California's Interstate 5, can produce 150 million pounds of beef a year. (George Rose/Getty Images)

Methane also emerges from decomposing natural waste, which can instead be collected in pipes at landfills and on farms and burned for heat or electricity.

Friday’s announcement occurred at the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, convened by Biden to build momentum for an agreement ambitious enough to stop catastrophic climate change at the upcoming U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

“We have to bring to Glasgow our highest possible ambitions,” Biden said. “Time is running out.”

Seven more countries in attendance at the forum — Argentina, Ghana, Indonesia, Iraq, Italy, Mexico and the United Kingdom — signed the pledge. How exactly each of those countries will meet its goals is unclear.

Several large countries were not present at the forum, including China, India and Brazil. The absence of those countries — especially China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases — could signal trouble ahead for Biden’s hopes of galvanizing major climate action in advance of COP26, as the Glasgow conference is formally known.

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