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Methane merits a mention in climate change challenge

By Jonathan Clayton | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2021-12-01 05:13

Environmental activist Greta Thunberg and other campaigners were quick to label the recently-concluded two weeks of climate change hand-wringing at COP26 in Glasgow as little more than "blah, blah, blah".

They may well have been right, but they were not averse to adding to the hot air themselves.

For much of the conference, one could have been forgiven for thinking that if fossil fuels, or more accurately coal and oil, could simply be banned, then all would be fine.

Of course, net emissions are important. Without tackling them, preventing global warming will not be possible. But it has never just been about that.

Many other factors play a part, and many of these are of particular concern to the developing world. The global South has borne the brunt of climate change, and has done the least to cause it.

This is a thorny issue and how to deal with it is still largely unresolved.

At a landmark United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen 12 years ago, rich nations promised to channel $100 billion a year to less wealthy nations by 2020, to help them adapt to climate change and mitigate further rises in temperature.

That promise was broken.

The money has never been fully delivered, and the suspicion and resentment it has created has not yet abated.

Global climate action needs trusted finance data. Compared to the investment required to avoid dangerous levels of climate change, the $100 billion pledge is minuscule. Trillions of dollars will be needed each year to meet the 2015 Paris Agreement goal of restricting global warming to well below 2 C, if not 1.5 C, above pre-industrial temperatures.

"We Pacific nations have not traveled to the other end of the world to watch our future sacrificed," Fiji's Prime Minister Josaia Bainimarama told his fellow heads of government in Glasgow. His country is in danger from sea level rises it has done nothing to cause.

Delegates from the developing world pointed out that some countries are now having to spend more in addressing the effects of global heating than on educating their young.

This is why many observers believe a decision by nearly 500 global financial services firms to align $130 trillion, some 40 percent of the world's financial assets, with the climate goals set out in the Paris Agreement, including limiting global warming to 1.5 C, could well turn out to be by far the most important outcome of Glasgow.

Mark Carney, the UN special envoy for climate action and finance, assembled the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero, a group of bankers, insurers and investors who have now committed to put climate change at the center of their work.

"The core message today is that the money is there, the money is there for the transition, and it's not blah blah blah," Carney told delegates during a COP26 climate finance event.

The commitment comes with a pathway by which the companies involved, including most of the major Western banks, must use science-based guidelines to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, and commit to interim goals toward a 50 percent reduction by 2030, and even a 25 percent reduction in the next five years.

This means adjusting their business models, developing credible plans for the transition, and then implementing them.

In the dying days of the conference, and largely away from the glare of the media spotlight, the Global Methane Pledge was also adopted. This could mark the biggest reduction in hot air for years.

The flatulence of cows is not a sexy topic, and barely rates a mention from the activist lobby, other than exhortations to 'go vegan', which is an unrealistic goal for most developing nations.

Estimates show methane has caused one-third of global warming, but tackling it gets much faster results than combatting CO2. More than 80 times as powerful in heating the planet as CO2 over a 20-year period, methane levels in the atmosphere have doubled since the 18th century.

Even radical cuts in CO2 emissions now will not do much to reduce warming in the next 20 to 30 years because the gas, once emitted, remains in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. Worse, slashing fossil fuel use, the main strategy for cutting CO2, also reduces emissions of sulphate aerosols that cool the atmosphere.

So, although essential for curbing warming in the long term, the dominant strategy actually threatens to make things worse in the next, crucial, decades.

Methane, by contrast, only stays aloft for around a decade, so attacking it can have a much quicker effect.

The author is a political analyst who focuses on Africa and the developing world. The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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