The COVID-19 pandemic slowed down many facets of life last year, leading to a small reduction in methane emissions, according to an International Energy Agency (IEA) report. The organization primarily attributed an approximate 10 percent drop in emissions from oil and gas companies to lower production amid reduced demand. However, it claimed those operations still released over 70 million tonnes (77 million tons) of methane into the atmosphere in 2020.
Agriculture is the largest source of human-generated methane emissions (around a quarter), followed by the energy sector. According to the IEA, leaks from the natural gas value chain cause around 60 percent of the industry’s emissions and oil production is responsible for the remainder.
After carbon dioxide, methane emissions are the second-largest contributor to global warming. Although there's less of it in the atmosphere and it has a much shorter lifespan than carbon dioxide, it's more efficient at absorbing energy. Assuming that a ton of methane is equivalent to 30 times as much carbon dioxide, the IEA said, the total global emissions from oil and gas companies matched the energy-related carbon footprint of the European Union last year.
The IEA warned that emissions could increase if fossil fuel production ramps up again. It called on companies to do more to fix leaks in pipelines and production plants, noting that many of them could be remedied at no net cost after selling the retained methane. The report suggests that, under the IEA Sustainable Development Scenario, the oil and gas sector needs to reduce emissions by over 70 percent by 2030.
While methane leaks can be difficult to locate, new satellites are capable of identifying large-scale ones. The IEA included satellite data in its methane tracker for the first time this year. Data from analytics company Kayrros indicated that emissions were down in Iraq, Kuwait, Turkmenistan and the US in 2020, though they rose in Russia, Algeria and Kazakhstan. The organization noted that satellites aren't the only way to pinpoint the source of large leaks, however, since they don't currently track data for offshore operations or in equatorial or northern regions.