THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Copenhagen, Methane Emissions, and the Arctic

As world leaders and policymakers continue to gather at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, the focus of media attention has largely and rightly been on carbon emissions. Over the long haul it's carbon that matters.

But, over the next two decades, other emissions are critical to climate as well. Melting ice in the Arctic, retreating glaciers, and other changes already underway won't be halted by CO2 cuts today, because CO2 lasts for many centuries. Faster warming and more transient gases like methane can, however, if reduced, provide climate relief for these sensitive areas.

For that reason, the recommendations released on December 11th in Copenhagen by a blue-ribbon panel of experts deserve particular attention. The panel called for a crash program to reduce heat-trapping methane emissions as a way to slow the rapid warming of the Arctic, the Himalayas, and the Earth as whole. It urged the creation of a Global Methane Fund to underwrite projects that could bring about a quick reduction in powerful methane emissions.

The distinguished multi-national panel includes prominent experts on science, governance and finance from China, the European Union, Mexico, Norway, and the United States. Among its members are such renowned authorities as:

  • Dr. Robert Watson, former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change;
  • Dr. Mohamed El-Ashry, Senior Fellow, United Nations Foundation, and Chairman & CEO Emeritus, Global Environment Facility;
  • Ambassador Bo Kjellen, former chief climate negotiator of Sweden;
  • Dr. Luisa Molina, president of the Molina Center for Strategic Studies in Energy and the Environment in La Jolla, CA, and principal research scientist at the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology;
  • Ken Newcombe, CEO and Founder, C-Quest Capital, and former head of carbon finance at the World Bank.

"Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas - second only to carbon dioxide in its overall impact," said Dr. Molina, while presenting the recommendations in Copenhagen. "A rapid reduction in methane may be our best hope to blunt the effects of global warming in the near term. While carbon reductions are the longer focus, we need to reduce methane to help protect systems that may be already on the brink from past CO2 warming."

Reducing methane emissions could bring quick results, because its warming lasts only 10 years, while CO2 warming already in place will continue for centuries. Accordingly, limiting methane could be crucial for regions that could reach critical thresholds or "tipping points" that affect the global climate system or large human populations, such as those in the Arctic and the Himalayas.

As Ken Newcombe noted, technologies already exist to limit methane emissions. Hundreds of clean-up projects are shovel-ready, but many plans for controlling the pollutant have foundered because of frozen credit markets and the global financial crisis. "We need to thaw those markets - and get those methane projects rolling," he added.

To do this, the blue-ribbon panel has proposed a new financing structure - a Global Methane Fund - to stimulate investments in methane-abatement projects by providing a floor price for carbon credits from methane projects. The Panel's analysis suggests that a small and nimble Fund could be created with as little as $100 million pooled together from governments, foundations and private companies; it could leverage several billion dollars in methane-abatement projects.

The Panel urged that the Fund aim to tackle 50 percent of cost-effective global methane emission reductions by 2020. Money disbursed by the Fund would be repaid from the value derived from credits under cap-and-trade systems, and the use of captured energy.

A full list of panel members and details of the Panel's recommendations can be found at www.globalmethanefund.org.

The author is executive director of the Clean Air Task Force (www.catf.us), an environmental organization advancing clean technology in the United States and China.