President Biden has come out swinging on climate change. In his first months as president, his administration has rejoined the Paris Agreement, appointed domestic and international climate czars, and this week proposed an “American Jobs Plan” with sweeping investments in greener infrastructure. All of this, however, is prologue to the highly anticipated April 22 World Climate Summit at the White House, where he is expected to unveil the United States’ ambitious new Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement.
The new NDC presents the Biden administration with a clear opportunity to take up the mantel on global climate leadership, and to send a clear signal out across the world that keeping temperature rise well below 2 degrees C is the right goal. To do so, the NDC must include aggressive reductions of methane pollution.
Methane pollution, commonly emitted during oil and gas production, as well as from agriculture, coal mines, and landfills, warms the planet 80 times more than carbon pollution over 20 years. It accounts for a quarter of today’s global warming, and its levels in the atmosphere are surging. But there’s a clear opportunity to change that. Rapidly and dramatically cutting methane pollution is both critically needed and technologically attainable and presents a clear opportunity for an early climate victory on the road to achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement.
A recent study found that the U.S. can cut methane emissions from the oil gas sector by up to 65 percent with currently available technologies. By strengthening requirements to find and fix methane leaks at oil and gas facilitates and replacing outdated equipment with zero-emitting technology, the U.S. could cut methane emissions by 7.8 million tons, the equivalent of shutting down 170 coal-fired power plants or taking 140 million gas-powered cars off the road. In addition to the climate impacts, strong methane standards would provide immediate relief to more than 12 million people living within a half mile of gas and oil facilities, including 1 million Black people — all while creating thousands of new jobs.
And while any efforts to address methane in the NDC are welcome, retreading the Obama-era level methane commitments would be insufficient. Just like no one today wants an iPhone 6, the U.S. should not be satisfied with a methane policy from 2016. Even if extended to existing equipment, the 2016 standards would only reduce emissions by a paltry 20 percent below 2012 levels — 5 million more tons of methane pollution per year compared to an ambitious policy. The United States’ pledge must reflect all the progress that has been made over the past five years and fit into the Biden administration’s efforts not just to build back, but to build back better.
A strong methane emissions target would put the U.S. in good company with its global peers as well. In October of 2020, the European Commission released the EU’s “methane strategy,” signaling the start of a process to develop legislation to tackle methane pollution. In 2018, Canada and Mexico issued strong methane standards for the oil and gas sector, and many other countries are considering following their lead. By the same token, a strong U.S. commitment on methane pollution would help galvanize similar action from other major global emitters like China, India, and Russia. If executed correctly, the NDC can become the fulcrum for leveraging international action on methane and other gases.
The table is set for a strong methane target in the U.S. NDC to the Paris Agreement.
President Biden made methane emissions a central component of the climate plan that he campaigned on. Congress recently moved to roll back the Trump-era revocation of U.S. methane standards for the oil and gas industry. And newly confirmed EPA Administrator Michael Regan told Rolling Stone that he would be “laser-focused” on reducing methane emissions.
The world will be watching when Biden takes to the podium to reintroduce the U.S. on the world stage. By announcing a strong goal to tackle methane emissions, he can take an immediate bite out of U.S. emissions and usher in a new era of U.S. leadership on climate change.
Sarah Smith is the Program Director, Super Pollutants at Clean Air Task Force and a 2011 Switzer Fellow.