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Energy & Science

China’s Energy Sector Methane Emissions Dwarf U.S. and Russia

The world’s largest coal producer accounted for roughly a fifth of all the methane spewed by the global energy industry last year, according to the IEA

Satellite-detected methane leaks from human activities in 2021.
Satellite-detected methane leaks from human activities in 2021.

China’s coal operations spewed so much methane last year that it had the same global warming impact as all the carbon dioxide emissions from international shipping. 

The nation’s energy sector, the world’s largest coal producer, accounted for roughly a fifth of total global methane emissions from oil, gas, coal and biomass. It generated over 50% more than the next largest emitters: Russia and the U.S. The estimates, which are the latest from the International Energy Agency’s Methane Tracker, show the enormity of China’s task in mitigating its methane pollution. 

“China has encouraged miners to utilize more methane produced during the mining process but there remain major obstacles,” said Nannan Kou, an analyst with BloombergNEF in Beijing. “Capturing the gas requires a lot of capital investment and most mines aren’t near major gas transmission pipelines.” Different entities are often responsible for extracting coal and any methane produced, making efforts to curb emissions more complicated, he added. 

China’s National Energy Administration and its Ministry of Ecology and Environment didn’t answer questions sent by fax seeking comment.  

The report, released last week, also highlighted the gap between methane releases detected by satellite and emissions reported by nations to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Many countries compile that data by essentially adding up numbers on an excel sheet. A nation might look at its energy system and, for example, count the total number of compressor stations, then multiply that by generic methane release rates for the amount of fuel processed through them. But that approach can fail to reflect the scale of methane emissions observed by satellite and aerial surveys.

“In many cases countries don’t base their inventories on measured data,” said Christophe McGlade, head of the energy supply unit at the International Energy Agency. “As more and more measurement campaigns are being carried out we are seeing that there is this growing discrepancy.’’

The IEA said global methane emissions from the energy sector exceeded the sum of nationally reported inventories by about 70%. Atmospheric methane increased by a record amount last year, to 1,876 parts per billion, according to the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, helping push global temperatures in 2021 to the fifth-highest ever recorded.