The grandly aspirational announcements getting all the COP 26 press actually have nothing to do with the COP, which is basically a business meeting.
Most of these big news events are in reality trivial, such as India saying it will try to hit net zero 50 years from now. Greta Thunberg will be pushing 70 so she is right that this is not action. (As blah blah goes this is the real deal, hence her strident take on coming around the mountain, which I love. See https://www.cfact.org/2021/11/02/cop-26-greta-thunberg-sings-shove-your-climate-crisis-up-your-a/)
One grand aspiration, however, is worth a closer look, because it is worse than empty. It is dangerously stupid. This is the growing pledge to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030.
Here is how Climate Home News put it: “The US and EU got more than a hundred countries on board with a commitment to cut methane emissions 30% by 2030, putting oil and gas sector leakage in the spotlight”.
Wow, more than a hundred countries. And who needs leakage, right? Leakage sounds like waste, although like recycling it might be ridiculously expensive to stop the waste.
The problem is that very few countries outside the EU and US generate a lot of methane from extensive oil and gas production. For most countries the methane comes from FARMING. If you cut farming by 30% a lot of people quickly starve to death. No one seems to have noticed this inconvenient truth.
The estimates of methane emissions by source are all over the place, which is another reason promising a 30% cut in 8 short years is stupid. But here are some standard global numbers that frame the issue.
The three big sources are energy, livestock and rice growing and they are roughly equal. In the US and EU energy is huge, while rice is very small and livestock is just sizable. In many developing countries energy is small while either rice or livestock are huge as a fraction of methane emissions. It does not matter how small your economy is, your target is still a 30% cut.
Livestock is not just cows, it is all domestic ruminants. In round numbers the estimated global population is 1.5 billion cows, 1.1 billion sheep and 0.9 billion goats. Basically 3.5 billion methane generating critters. Imagine the impact of cutting these huge numbers by 30%.
Rice is even worse because it can be the staple diet, or a leading export good, or both. Global rice production is right around half a billion tons a year. Cutting that 30% would be catastrophic.
All things considered this proposed methane reduction looks just as unrealistic as net zero, except it is supposed to happen in just 8 short years. We are not about to cut livestock and rice production at all, much less by an incredible 30%. Just as we cannot do without fossil fuels, we cannot do with huge cuts in livestock and rice.
Perhaps there is a method to this methane madness. Maybe having impossible aspirations is the road to great achievement. Should I aspire to be President or an Olympic gold medalist? Does possibility not matter? I find this hard to accept as a rational policy.
Or maybe the US and EU are promising big bucks to those poor countries that at least try to cut their methane emissions (even though methane is harmless climatewise). Is this just another great green bribe, like so much of the war on climate?
Let’s hope this methane madness is just another pointless aspiration.