While emissions of methane across the European Union have decreased over past years, the overall reduction in emissions needs to accelerate to meet 2030 and 2050 EU climate objectives. Increased global efforts to reduce methane emissions would also be needed to mitigate global warming in the short term, according to a European Environment Agency (EEA) briefing on trends and drivers of methane emissions published today.

The EEA briefing ‘Methane emissions in the EU: the key to immediate action on climate change’ provides an updated review of the key sources of methane (CH4) in the EU and looks at projections, policies and measures implemented as well as relevant EU legislation.

The briefing also includes a methane emissions visualisation tool where users can see country CH4 emissions as reported in their greenhouse gas inventories.

A downward trend

According to the latest available official data, emissions of CH4 is down by 36% in the EU in 2020 compared with 1990 levels, furthering a 30-year downward trend.

The largest reductions in emissions occurred in energy supply, which includes energy industries and fugitive (leaked or uncaptured emissions) (-65%), waste (-37%) and agriculture (-21%).

Overall, reductions in methane emissions have been significant and reflect:

  • a decrease in agricultural livestock numbers and increased efficiency in the agricultural sector;
  • lower levels of coal mining and post-mining activities;
  • improved oil and gas pipeline networks;
  • less waste disposal on land, and
  • an increase in recycling, composting, landfill gas recovery, and waste incineration with energy recovery.

The observed emission reductions have contributed not only to climate change mitigation but also to better air quality, because of synergies in the reduction of greenhouse gases and air pollutants.

More to be done

Still, despite the progress, methane concentrations are increasing rapidly and reductions need to be stepped up across all sectors. Methane is substantially stronger at trapping heat than carbon dioxide (CO2) and also has an average shorter lifetime than CO2.

Reducing CH4 emissions globally is a low hanging fruit for the current generation, using existing practices and technologies. Policies aimed at CH4 emission reductions will deliver faster benefits from the climate mitigation perspective in the short term. Reducing CH4 emissions will also lead to lower ozone formation and local air pollution, which would bring health-related benefits thanks to cleaner air.

Continued reductions in other greenhouse gases (GHG) are also essential to achieving the long-term climate goals. The EEA briefing notes the EU has put in place overarching and sector-specific policies to reduce GHG emissions, including methane emissions representing 12% of total EU emissions in 2020 — half of which are from agriculture.

As countries implement EU and national legislation, GHG emissions will decrease further. However, to help achieve the EU’s 2030 and 2050 climate objectives, the EU needs to reduce emissions more rapidly, including via policies and measures aimed at reducing methane emissions.

The EEA briefing also notes several policy options and technologies are available to reduce emissions and improve not only the climate and environment but also energy security. For example, landfill gas recovery from waste or biogas produced from agricultural manure can be used to produce electricity and heat in the energy sector.

Preventing and addressing leaks from oil and natural gas systems remain a challenge and have become urgent especially in wake of the recent leaks due to explosions in the two Nord Stream natural gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea.

International frameworks and initiatives are also key to reducing methane emissions and mitigating climate change globally. Ambitious EU policies alone will not be sufficient to ensure that we do not exceed the 1.5°C global rise in temperature goal, as the EU accounts for 7% of global greenhouse gas emissions and for less than 5% of global CH4 emissions.

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