US-Russia cooperation on an Arctic methane agreement could improve relations — and slow climate change

When Presidents Biden and Putin meet in Geneva, they should consider collaborating on a binding Arctic Council measure to limit methane emissions.

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A giant flame erupts out of a flare tower at the Snøhvit liquefied natural gas complex in Hammerfest in northern Norway in a September 18, 2007 file photo. (Wojciech Moskwa / Reuters File Photo)

With relations between the United States and Russia at one of their lowest points in many years, the summit between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin planned for this week in Geneva will be among the most awaited international meetings. It follows the first in-person meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, where two diplomats met on the sidelines of the Arctic Council Ministerial meeting in Reykjavik in May — and where they both indicated that two countries can still find ways to work together. Even though the June’s summit in Switzerland is not likely to deliver major breakthroughs, it might explore areas of possible common ground for the two countries – including responding to climate change.

If the United States and Russia are looking for a win-win opportunity to collaborate on a concrete action with global benefits, they could focus on cutting methane emissions – and they could concentrate on it in the Arctic. More specifically, they could work on crafting a binding Arctic Council agreement limiting methane emissions during Russia’s two-year tenure as chair, which has just begun.

Avoiding the most warming in the shortest amount of time

As one of the Arctic Council’s working groups, the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program, reported in its 2021 Arctic Climate Change Update, the Arctic has warmed up not two, but three times more than the rest of the globe over the last 50 years, with adverse consequences for Arctic environment, biodiversity, Indigenous peoples and local communities, and for the global climate system.

Even though carbon dioxide has been the largest contributor to global warming, methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that belongs to a category of short-lived climate forcers or, so called super climate pollutants, that strongly influence the climate but have a decisively shorter atmospheric lifetime than CO2. Methane is emitted naturally from wetlands and soils but today more than half of global methane emissions stem from human activities in three sectors: fossil fuels, waste, and agriculture.

Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and over a 20-year timeframe it has more than 80 times higher warming potential than CO2. Through its role in the formation of ground-level ozone, it also affects air quality and is harmful to human health and vegetation.

Methane stays in the atmosphere for approximately only 12 years – compared to an average of 100 years for carbon dioxide. It means that when we stop emitting methane, it will fall out of the atmosphere much more quickly than CO2 and 90 percent of the warming it causes will stop within a decade and a half – in contrast with 25-40 percent of carbon dioxide that will stay in the atmosphere for 500 years or more and leading to more warming.

The recent UNEP and Climate and Clean Air Coalition’s Global Methane Assessment published in May suggests that cutting human-caused methane emissions, including from the fossil fuel industry, is one of the best and most cost-effective ways of rapidly reducing the rate of warming by 2030 and in the next three decades — the critical period if the world is to have a fighting chance at keeping global temperature increase below the 1.5 degree Celsius threshold global leaders agreed to aim for in the Paris Agreement. Collectively, fast cuts targeting short-lived climate forcers (black carbon, methane, tropospheric ozone, and hydrofluorocarbons) could help avoiding three times more warming by 2050 than policies targeting CO2 alone and would reduce projected warming in the Arctic by two-thirds and the rate of global warming by half.

Many methane emissions are associated with the production and transportation of hydrocarbons, which are largescale and growing enterprises in the Arctic. As the Arctic Council’s Expert Group on Black Carbon and Methane reported, the oil and gas industry represents some of the best opportunities for low- or zero-net cost methane reduction strategies — meaning that measures implemented in that sector would effectively pay for themselves by saving money. Moreover, the International Energy Agency has recently estimated that 73 percent of global methane emissions from the oil and gas sector could be avoided with existing technologies.

The existence of those readily available, low-cost, targeted measures combined with methane’s short-lived lifetime in the atmosphere means that by taking action on methane it is possible to achieve significant climate, clean air, health and economic benefits by 2030. Whereas reducing methane emissions is no alternative to mitigating CO2 and work on both needs to go ahead in parallel, cuts to carbon dioxide are not useful for slowing down near-term warming. It will take decades before we see climate effectively responding to them. Before that, the action on methane is the best solution to avoid the most warming over the next decade and to keep 1.5 degrees C within reach. As the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program reported, the more ambitious goals on reduction of fine particles (related to black carbon) and ground-level ozone (methane is a precursor to it) in Arctic states could also help avoid an estimated 97,000 estimated deaths associated with respiratory diseases.

The Arctic Council’s existing work on methane

In 2015, Arctic Council member states accounted for 20 percent of global anthropogenic emissions of methane, mainly from the energy sector, especially from oil and gas exploration and distribution, but also from waste and agriculture. Wary of the powerful effects that black carbon and methane have on climate warming, Arctic states adopted the Arctic Council’s Framework for Action on Enhanced Black Carbon and Methane Emission Reductions at the body’s 2015 ministerial meeting, in which they committed to an aspirational goal of reducing black carbon emissions and to significantly reducing their methane emissions. They also established the Expert Group on Black Carbon and Methane to be chaired by Arctic country chairing the Arctic Council in a given two-year period to assess and report on the progress in achieving that goal. At the ministerial meeting in Fairbanks in 2017, Arctic nations specified the collective goal of reducing their black carbon emissions by 25-33 percent by 2025 relative to levels from 2013. As AMAP reported at the ministerial meeting last month, that voluntary commitment is nearly on track and by simply implementing current policies, Arctic states will achieve an estimated 22 percent reduction in black carbon by 2025 — even without tapping into the significant potential for further cuts that exists with the best available technologies.

In contrast to black carbon, however, methane emissions in Arctic states actually increased by 2 percent between 2013 and 2018 and, as reported by the EGBCM, are projected to continue rising by 2025. According to AMAP, methane emissions in Arctic countries are expected to further grow by 13 percent by 2050, even if the existing legislation is implemented. In their recommendations, the Arctic Council’s expert and working groups, in line with global assessments, agree that urgent action on super climate pollutants, including methane, is needed now to slow the rate of Arctic warming and avoid the most devastating effects to Arctic Indigenous peoples, societies, and ecosystems. Together, Russia and the United States have a chance to act on it.

Time for a legally binding Arctic agreement on reducing methane emissions?

Data presented at the Arctic Council Ministerial meeting in Reykjavik shows that a voluntary commitment by Arctic states to reduce methane emissions has, up to now, achieved virtually nothing — despite technological readiness and related economic, health, and climate benefits. A new legally binding agreement on mitigating anthropogenic methane emissions from the Arctic might be a needed tool. With Russia now chairing the Arctic Council (and the EGBCM), along with the Biden’s administration renewed focus on addressing climate crisis in the Arctic and globally, and all Arctic states committed to goals of Paris Agreement, Russia and the United States could take a lead on that effort and bring it to a successful conclusion. Their recent actions and statements show that they pay attention to importance of reducing methane emissions to addressing climate change — in April, the U.S. Senate voted to reinstate Obama-era regulations on methane emissions and in the same month, Putin in his speech at the Leaders Summit on Climate organized by the White House, talked about a large potential that halving methane emissions could have for climate warming, even if he stayed short of pledging any concrete actions to address that.

In the Arctic Council, the two countries have a perfect forum to collaborate on a regional methane agreement, where they could achieve concrete, meaningful results among a small number of Arctic parties, but with a potentially large global impact.

In the past, the Arctic Council served as a venue for successful negotiations of three legally binding agreements among Arctic states: on search and rescue (2011), on marine oil pollution preparedness and response (2013), and on enhancing international scientific collaboration in the Arctic (2017). In each of them, joint leadership by Russia and the United States was key. Moreover, through the council’s structure and its expert and working groups, Arctic states have already in place both an appropriate platform and the scientific and technological capacities to support negotiations on methane.

Opportunity to jumpstart U.S.-Russia relations

What remains an open question is whether the U.S. and Russia will have a political will to use that opportunity to effectively work together on climate and enhance their cooperation in the Arctic.

One may also ask if a regional agreement on methane concluded among Arctic nations will solve a problem of climate warming. No, it will not.

But it would be a big and important step in a right direction for Arctic collaboration, for global efforts to slow climate change — and for U.S.-Russia relations.

Malgorzata (Gosia) Smieszek holds a PhD in international relations and is a researcher and project coordinator at The University of Tromsø – The Arctic University of Norway and an adjunct fellow at the East-West Center, Hawaii. She is a co-lead of a non-profit “Women of the Arctic.”

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by ArcticToday, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary (at) arctictoday.com.