At U.N. Climate talks, oil companies pledge to combat methane; Environmentalists call it ‘smokescreen’
06 December 2023, 12:00 AM
31 January 2024, 12:00 AM
Methane emissions are a significant contributor to global warming, so sharply reducing them could help slow temperature rise. If the companies carry out their pledges, it could trim one-tenth of a degree Celsius (0.18 degrees Fahrenheit) from future warming, a prominent climate scientist calculated and told The Associated Press. That is about how much the Earth is currently warming every five years.
Fifty oil companies representing nearly half of global production have pledged to reach near-zero methane emissions and end routine flaring in their operations by 2030, the president of this year's United Nations climate talks said on Saturday, a move that environmental groups called a “smokescreen".
The announcement by Sultan Al Jaber, president of the summit known as COP28 and head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Co., comes as he and others have insisted his background would allow him to bring oil companies to the negotiating table. Al Jaber has maintained that having the industry's buy-in is crucial to drastically slashing the world’s greenhouse emissions by nearly half in seven years to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) compared with pre-industrial times.
Signing on to the pledge were major national oil companies such as Saudi Aramco, Brazil's Petrobras and Sonangol, from Angola, and multi-nationals like Shell, TotalEnergies and BP.
“The world does not work without energy,” said Al Jaber, speaking in a session on the oil industry. “Yet the world will break down if we do not fix energies we use today, mitigate their emissions at a gigaton scale, and rapidly transition to zero carbon alternatives.”
For months leading up to COP28, there was speculation of action on methane. Not only do methane leaks, along with flaring, which is burning of excess methane, and venting of the gas, all contribute to climate change, but these problems can largely solved with current technologies and changes to operations. Indeed, oil and gas companies could have taken such measures years ago but largely have not, instead focusing more on expanding production than focusing on the byproduct of it.
In that way, the methane deal represented a potentially significant contribution to combating climate change that largely maintained the status quo for the oil and gas industry. Many environmental groups were quick to criticise it.
The pledge is a “smokescreen to hide the reality that we need to phase out oil, gas and coal,” said a letter signed by more than 300 civil society groups.
Marcelo Mena, CEO of Global Methane Hub, rejected that the notion that having near-zero methane emission commitments was a way to delay a phase out of fossil fuels.
“We wouldn’t let oil companies leak into the ocean until phase out, so why would we let them leak out methane to super charge climate change?” said Mena, a former environment minister in Chile.
Still, Mena said that self-reporting didn't go far enough to push oil and gas companies to make changes. Instead, he said putting a price on pollution, or companies finding themselves shut out of markets that require high standards with leaks, would force change.
Also, Jean Su, energy justice director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said: “The commitments to cut methane are significant, but they address the symptom, not the source.”