A proposed EU regulation on methane emissions must be strengthened, not diluted, to address a planet on fire.
The proposed European Union regulation on reducing emissions of methane (CH4) in energy has entered its final legislative phase. The ‘trilogue’ negotiations will determine the final ambition on the text. The European Parliament, the Council of the EU and the European Commission will need to reconcile their different starting positions—and aim for a text that drastically slashes CH4 pollution in the short term.
CH4 emissions comprise a complex topic, frequently underestimated, which tends to fly under the public radar. Immediate action is however crucial: with the summer of 2023 the hottest on record, CH4 as well as carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions are self-evidently accountable for accelerating global heating and causing unprecedented extreme-weather events worldwide.
The bad news is that CH4 emissions have been rising sharply since 2007 and as of 2022 remained stubbornly high. CH4 is the main component of fossil gas and is more than 80 times as potent as CO2 in trapping heat in the atmosphere over a 20-year period. Tackling CH4 pollution by the fossil-fuel industry thus represents a key near-term opportunity—as well as obligation—to slow global heating in the few remaining years left to avoid dangerous ecological tipping points and irreversible transformations.
Energy-related emissions are the easiest and cheapest to abate and it would take only a fraction of the monster profits made by fossil-fuel majors to do so. EU institutions must now work for a final agreement that is not riddled with flaws and loopholes for the sole benefit of the industry. They need to ensure the regulation is truly in the interest of the planet and its people.
Unfortunately, the commission’s initial proposal has several shortcomings. The most glaring is the failure to advance any legally binding targets for cutting CH4 emissions—or even to mention the need to reduce CH4 emissions on the path towards the phase-out of fossil fuels.
The proposal would also not ensure regulatory equivalency for imported fossil fuels: it would not extend domestic provisions on monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV), leak detection and repair (LDAR) and putting a limit on routine venting and flaring (LRVF) to all fossil energy imported into the EU and to the petrochemicals sector. Yet the bloc is among the largest importers of fossil fuels in the world and 75-90 per cent of CH4 emissions associated with EU energy consumption occur outside its borders. The transparency provisions for importers included in the commission’s proposal are certainly not enough.
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For its part, the council’s position is devoid of ambition, weakening the requirements on MRV, LDAR and LRVF in the commission version. The extended timeframes envisaged for inspections of all equipment, eased detection limits and repair thresholds, and exemptions for offshore oil and gas wells would seriously threaten the EU’s credibility in the fight against the climate crisis.
By contrast, the parliament’s position would mark a significant step forward. Alongside a binding 2030 target for reduction of EU CH4 emissions and inclusion of petrochemicals in the scope of the legislative act, the parliament urges fossil-fuel importers to ensure exporters of oil, fossil gas and coal comply with the same standards, starting from 2026.
In the coming weeks, the negotiators must push toward an ambitious agreement to counterbalance the diluted position initially proposed by the council. Politics cannot waste time or ignore reality. A strong regulation is needed to provide firm solutions to cut CH4 emissions across the whole fossil-fuels supply chain.
The rules must be extended to fossil-gas imports, especially as imports surge of liquefied ‘natural’ gas (LNG) and fracked gas. The EU cannot ignore its wider international commitment to cut CH4 emissions in the Global Methane Pledge. A bold text is key to sustaining the union’s leadership and credibility ahead of the COP28 conference in Qatar later this year.
Reducing CH4 emissions is however not enough. The EU must work to phase out fossil fuels altogether and embark on a 100 per cent clean-energy transition. Actions to cut CH4 emissions cannot be an excuse for the fossil-fuel industry to keep digging for oil, fossil gas and coal and investing in new fossil-fuel infrastructure.
EU institutions have a responsibility towards all their citizens to ensure a liveable world for current and future generations. With terrifying heatwaves and extreme-weather events having spread across the globe this summer, the time for half-baked solutions is long gone.