Apart from carbon dioxide, methane has been identified as one of the main contributors to global warming. In Southeast Asia, efforts to reduce methane emissions should focus on the agriculture and oil and gas sectors.
Heads were turned when the Global Methane Pledge promised a 30 per cent cut by 2030. The optics were superb at the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, but details have been scarce. The pledge counts Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia among the 103 signatories at COP26. The discourse in Southeast Asia has focused on the pledge and individual solutions, but not the proportionality of the problems.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has identified methane as one of the main greenhouse gases causing global warming since 1990. Methane is naturally degraded in the atmosphere within 15 years — sooner than carbon dioxide — but its potency is much greater. Within the first 20 years, 1 kg of methane has the same warming impact as 86 kg of carbon dioxide. In the 1.5 degree pathways modelled by the IPCC, methane emissions have to be reduced by 34 per cent by 2030 — more than the Global Methane Pledge.
Lately, it was found that the IPCC overestimated contributions from natural sources by 10 times and underestimated contributions from oil and gas production by 25-40 per cent. Besides understanding methane emissions from industrial processes, more attention is needed on the relative contributions from various sources like forest fires, gas leakages, cow burps, rice paddies, and volcanoes. This strengthens the impetus to confront the methane problem.
In Southeast Asia, Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and critically Indonesia (one of the largest methane emitters in the world), have committed to the Methane Pledge. Two sectors stand out for the region: agriculture and the oil and gas sector. The former is the largest methane contributor while the latter is considered a ‘low-hanging fruit’.
Table 1: Methane Contributions Versus Solution Feasibility of Selected Sectors
|Oil and gas||10.5%||Higher|
Agriculture may be where the greatest reduction potential lies in Southeast Asia, but the solutions are not clear. In Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand, rice cultivation produces much more methane than the whole oil and gas industries of these countries. (Figure 1). One solution is using rice species that produce fewer emissions. However, this may only yield marginal improvements.
Another strategy is shifting the common practice of continuous flooding to Alternate Wet and Dry Irrigation (AWDI), which has reduced methane emissions by 26 per cent in Central Vietnam. This has compelled the government to include it as a mitigation measure in its Nationally Determined Contribution. However, the same strategy in Central Java only yielded 12 to 14 per cent reductions. A regional comparative analysis across experimental sites would help develop site-specific guidance. Another tall order is the scaling up of AWDI, which would need irrigation infrastructure, water allocation mechanism, pricing frameworks and enforcement.
The forest fires in Indonesia accounted for more than half of its methane emissions, which is greater than the total methane emissions of any other Southeast Asian country.
The oil and gas sector is the low-hanging fruit for methane reductions, a view shared by the European Commission President and widely promulgated within Southeast Asia. Installing capture technologies at oil and gas facilities can help to monetise the captured methane — in fact, this upgrade adds no net cost for up to 45 per cent of leakages. However, leakages are not the largest source of methane from oil and gas. In order to make a significant dent, producers need to invest in all available mitigation technology across the entire value chain, affecting 75 per cent of oil and gas methane emissions, which is still a drop in the ocean to achieving the Methane Pledge.
While cost-effective, leakage reduction should not be regarded as a ticket to the exploitation of new fossil gas, which is incompatible with a 2050 net zero pathway. Investment in gas can crowd out potential financing of renewable energy, which can already replace some gas plants. Renewables may become cheaper than gas as costs continue falling.
Elephants in the Room
The forest fires in Indonesia accounted for more than half of its methane emissions, which is greater than the total methane emissions of any other Southeast Asian country. President Jokowi called for a permanent solution to the forest fires while paradoxically scrapping the legislative mandate of 30 per cent forest cover on every island. To compound matters, there is a lack of enforcement of existing laws. This allows plantation owners who set fires to walk away unscathed. The current moratorium on oil palm plantation and forest and peatland conversion was driven by the need to preserve nature as carbon sinks. The renewed policy discourse could emphasise methane’s effects in addition to carbon dioxide.
Another elephant in the room is methane contribution from livestock. While it gets less attention than rice cultivation in the region, methane emissions from livestock in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam (through enteric fermentation) are significantly higher than methane emissions of the oil and gas sector in these countries (Figure 1). In Myanmar, half of agricultural methane emissions come from animal burps and manure. As Southeast Asia grows wealthier, meat consumption will rise, furthering the industrialisation of livestock farming. One solution is adding seaweed or garlic to the feed, which can reduce methane production by 82 or 50 per cent, respectively. But the affordability of such additives in developing countries is questionable.
The regional discourse on methane could place pressures on Thailand, which was absent from the global methane pledge. Bangkok, which will host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings that this year, should seek to prioritise the common methane challenge.