New IPCC report zeroes in on urgency of reducing methane

The new report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the direst warning yet that we must rapidly and drastically slash climate emissions around the world and that reducing methane emissions is mission critical.

Though the report includes some important opportunities, it’s a very sober read. Let’s get some of the central but troubling conclusions out of the way.

We’ll likely pass 1.5C earlier than expected

Conducted by more than 200 of the world’s most influential climate scientists, the new assessment concludes we’re on course to surpass 1.5 C of warming by 2040, roughly a decade earlier than predicted in IPCC’s 2018 landmark report. A warming of 1.5 C will likely result in stronger and more frequent heat waves, heavier rainfall and flooding, more severe droughts and more powerful storms.

Each of these become more severe as we pass 1.5 C. Absent dramatic climate action, we could exceed 2 C of warming around midcentury and more than 5 C by 2100. The last time the planet sustained above a 2.5 C temperature increase was 3 million years ago.

Changes are happening everywhere, and some are accelerating and irreversible

The rate of sea level rise was twice as fast from 2006 to 2018 than from 1971 to 2006, and three times as fast as 1901 to 1971. Carbon dioxide levels are the highest in at least 2 million years. The last time the ocean warmed this quickly was at the end of the last ice age. Even as we reduce emissions, some consequences will continue before they abate: oceans will continue to warm and glaciers and ice sheets will continue to melt.

That’s a lot to process, and it will make some people feel hopeless. But there are important conclusions in the report that point us toward meaningful and powerful solutions.

Every degree matters

This report makes the existential threat of climate change undeniable, but it underscores the need for action now. IPCC concludes that every 0.5 C of global warming will worsen extreme events. Extreme heat, heat waves and heavy rainfall will further intensify and become more frequent.

More areas will be affected by drought, and tropical cyclones will become more powerful. Likewise, every incremental increase in temperature rise we avoid matters, too. The harsh conclusions by these scientists should not dissuade us from action, but should push us toward it.

Reducing methane is critical to slow warming and hit climate targets

Carbon dioxide is the most plentiful and longest-lasting climate driver. Methane, though it is less prevalent, is more than 80 times as powerful a heat trapper over the first 10-20 years, and human-made methane emissions are responsible for at least a quarter of today’s warming. That means reducing methane has an outsized impact on near-term temperature rise even as we work to reduce CO2 pollution.

In a red alert climate emergency, we need every available option to get us off life support, and IPCC recognizes that reducing methane is a critical one. The report cites robust evidence that methane reductions will improve air quality and that sustained reductions are essential to achieving Paris Agreement targets.

This builds on findings from a scientific paper published in April, which showed a rapid, all-out effort to substantially reduce methane emissions could slow the rate of current warming by 30%. Fully deploying known solutions could avoid 0.5 C of warming by end of century. This avoided warming could be the difference between a 2 and 1.5 degree world and mean 10 million fewer people at risk from sea level rise, half the number of people stressed for water, and half the number of plant and animal species losing crucial habitat. And the quickest, most cost-effective reduction technologies are in the oil and gas industry.

Decreasing methane from the agriculture and waste sectors, two other major emitters, is also important. But reducing methane pollution from the oil and gas sector remains the fastest, lowest-cost opportunity to slow down the speed of warming now — and in light of the IPCC report, we need policymakers moving with greater urgency and ambition to eradicate these emissions.

Reducing methane will not solve the climate crisis alone, but it is an unparalleled opportunity to shave off incremental warming that can keep planetary temperatures below 2 C.


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