What does China’s new methane plan mean for the climate?

Plan for reducing planet-heating emissions was followed by a new China-US announcement and pledges on closer cooperation.

China emitted 55.3 million tonnes of methane in 2014, with the largest sources being energy (44.8 per cent), agriculture (40.2 per cent) and waste (11.9 per cent), according to the latest available data reported by China. Image: , CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

Last week, China published its long-awaited action plan for controlling national methane emissions. After carbon dioxide (CO2), methane is the second-largest contributor to human-caused global warming.

Methane is not targeted by China’s 2030 carbon-peaking agenda, which only deals with CO2. But it does feature in the country’s efforts to achieve net-zero emissions for all greenhouse gases before 2060, according to Beijing’s climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua.

Experts tell China Dialogue that the new methane plan is significant in two regards. One is its sheer importance to curbing global warming, by tackling a potent greenhouse gas. The other is its geopolitical weight, as a symbol of China–US climate cooperation.

Since the plan was published, China and the US issued a new joint statement on addressing climate change, which reiterated the two countries’ commitment to tackling methane. A meeting between the two countries’ leaders also pledged to enhance climate cooperation.

Top-level methane plan

“China is the world’s largest emitter of methane and in some sectors, like coal, it is near-impossible to cut global emissions down to size without its cooperation,” says Ryan Driskell Tate, director of the coal programme at the US-based NGO Global Energy Monitor (GEM). Tate tells China Dialogue: “The action plan is nothing to sneeze at,” even though it does not set methane-reduction targets or timelines.

Tate’s analysis from last year found that Shanxi, China’s coal heartland, emits roughly the same amount of coal mine methane (13.1 megatonnes) as that of the rest of the world combined (13.8).

According to the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE), which led the publication of the action plan, it is Beijing’s top-level document for managing and controlling methane emissions.

China is the world’s largest emitter of methane and in some sectors, like coal, it is near-impossible to cut global emissions down to size without its cooperation.

Ryan Driskell Tate, coal programme director, Global Energy Monitor

China emitted 55.3 million tonnes of methane in 2014, with the largest sources being energy (44.8 per cent), agriculture (40.2 per cent) and waste (11.9 per cent), according to the latest available data reported by China. The warming potential of these emissions is equivalent to 1.16 billion tonnes of CO2, according to a 2022 study.

Estimates by the International Energy Agency (IEA) put the country’s energy-related methane emissions during 2022 at 55.7 million tonnes, or 15.6 per cent of the global total; China’s energy, agriculture and waste sectors represented 45.5 per cent, 33.2 per cent and 18.7 per cent.

A potent greenhouse gas

Curbing methane emissions is key to addressing climate change because it has far more warming potential than CO2: 80 times greater over a 20-year period and about 30 times more across 100 years.

On the other hand, methane’s atmospheric lifetime is between seven and 12 years, whereas CO2 can stay in the atmosphere for 300-1,000 years. This means cutting methane emissions has a more immediate impact on slowing global warming.

“Cutting methane emissions substantially in the near-term gives a double win,” Piers Forster, a professor at the UK’s University of Leeds, tells China Dialogue. Forster says slashing global methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030 could “halve the rate of warming and save many lives through reducing air pollution”. 

Forster is the founding director of the Priestley International Centre for Climate at the University of Leeds. He was also a coordinating lead author of the chapter that covered methane in relation to climate change in the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) of the UN’s climate science body, the IPCC.

Forster says the absence of numerical reduction targets in China’s new methane plan is not a surprise, because the country did not sign the Global Methane Pledge at COP26 in 2021. That framework – led by the United States and European Union and signed by around 100 countries so far – carries a target: to collectively reduce methane emissions by at least 30 per cent from 2020 levels by 2030.

“China and the west have different approaches to climate targets,” Forster says. The UK, EU and North America tend to set themselves “stretching” targets they are “unlikely to meet”, whereas China tends to only commit to objectives it will “likely over-deliver on”, he notes.

But “in the end it’s the delivery of change that matters,” Forster adds. “We’ll only know how well China is doing as we track its progress.”

Implementation is key

Although China’s plan lacks reduction targets, it does carry several specific objectives, especially on methane utilisation for the energy, agricultural and waste-treatment sectors.

For example, the plan requires 6 billion cubic metres of coal mine gas, which contains methane, to be collected annually by 2025. It also stipulates the “comprehensive utilisation rate” of livestock manure, another source of methane, should reach 80 per cent by 2025 and exceed 85 per cent by 2030.

China Dialogue spoke to Hu Min, the principal of the Institute for Global Decarbonization Progress (iGDP), a Chinese think tank. Hu regards the plan as a “very comprehensive” policy framework. “Even before the release of the plan, many policies already had methane-reduction effects. With the overall framework in place, the impact of those methane-reduction measures would be boosted greatly,” Hu says.

According to projections by Hu’s organisation, the measures in the plan can collectively help China cut its methane emissions by 246 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2035, compared to 2022 levels.

A Xinhua report from last year listed several existing Chinese policies to tackle methane. They included a trial policy for emission standards of coal mine methane, issued in 2008; a scheme to mandate the recycling of domestic waste, issued in 2017; and the establishment of the China Oil and Gas Methane Alliance of major Chinese energy firms in 2021.

GEM’s coal director Tate cautions that the success of China’s new methane plan “hinges on implementation”. The 2008 coal mine methane policy required existing coal operations to flare or use all drained methane gas (if safe to do so) by 2010, but a 2019 study suggested methane emissions had still risen in China and coal was the primary source. 

“This new action plan seems to recognise how weak those regulations may have been in practice,” Tate adds. “But we’ll have to wait and see how these policies will function on the ground.”

Forster of the University of Leeds also points out the difficulties in tackling methane emissions in agriculture, especially from rice paddies. 

“Most Western countries don’t include substantial agricultural emission reductions in their plans. So, progress here [by China] would be a bonus,” he says.

Some techniques that use less water, produce more rice and emit less methane have been gaining traction in China, China Dialogue has reported previously.

Data challenges

Tate says that a “bright spot” in the plan is its efforts to strengthen China’s reporting systems and data management for methane emissions.

The plan stipulates that China should “effectively increase” its ability to monitor, report and verify methane emissions from now until 2025 and “significantly increase” such ability between 2026 and 2030. The plan also seeks to establish frameworks for methane-related policies, technologies and standards in this decade.

“We have such a low bar for methane emissions reporting around the world,” Tate says. “As the old saying goes: ‘you can’t manage what you can’t measure.’”

“China could really change the game,” he adds.

Other experts believe that a weak data foundation for methane could be part of the reason China did not set reduction targets in this plan.

“The absence of specific goals in the plan shows that China’s progress in managing methane and other non-CO2 greenhouse gases is still in early stages,” notes Li Shuo, who directs the China Climate Hub at the Asia Society Policy Institute. He says the plan is an “important step forward” but he is “slightly disappointed” by the absence of reduction goals.

As early as November 2022, China’s climate envoy Xie Zhenhua implied that data issues had – to some degree – hampered the country’s goal-setting progress for methane.

On the sidelines of COP27, Xie said China had been able to set preliminary goals only for its energy, agriculture and waste sectors, because its statistical foundation was “weak” and the baseline data was “unclear”.

Xie set out then what became the two priorities of the national methane plan: that China should establish a monitoring, reporting and verification system for methane and prioritise ways to utilise methane emissions.

Beijing’s recent drive to enhance energy security might have affected the plan, too. “The policymakers’ recent priority has been to boost domestic coal, oil and gas output and reduce fuel costs, so not introducing more binding measures is likely related to this,” Lauri Myllyvirta tells China Dialogue. Myllyvirta is the lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

China–US climate cooperation

Some experts say that the plan’s geopolitical weight is equally – if not more – important than its environmental values, due to its close connection with China–US climate cooperation.

“The timing of the plan’s release, just ahead of COP28, is a strategic move signalling China’s intention to contribute to global methane emission control efforts,” Dorothy Mei tells China Dialogue. Mei is the project manager for GEM’s Global Coal Mine Tracker.

Beijing first pledged to develop a “comprehensive and ambitious national action plan on methane” at COP26 in 2021, as part of a joint climate declaration with Washington. According to the declaration, the plan was meant to be released before COP27, but climate talks between the two nations were suspended last year amid geopolitical tensions

Instead, the plan’s release coincided with the last day of a four-day meeting in California between the climate envoys of China and the United States. The talks led to the release of the US-China Sunnylands Statement on Enhancing Cooperation to Address the Climate Crisis, on November 14.

In the statement, the two parties pledged to implement their respective methane action plans and to develop methane reduction actions or targets to be included in their nationally determined contributions (NDCs) for 2035. Countries are expected to submit their 2035 NDCs in 2025.

They also announced they would jointly host a “Methane and Non-CO2 Greenhouse Gases Summit” at COP28 in the United Arab Emirates.

Li, of the Asia Society Policy Institute, says that the new China-US climate statement “sets broad boundaries for the anticipated debates at COP28”.

He adds that the leaders’ summit at the beginning of COP28 (December 1-2), the recently scheduled EU-China summit (December 7-8), and the outcomes of COP28 are “subsequent opportunities to assess China’s political will on climate change as well as the US-China climate dynamic”.

This article was originally published on China Dialogue under a Creative Commons licence.

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