Three weeks before the UN Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai, things are starting up again: alarming UN reports on emissions gaps, lack of climate aid and fossil fuels are shaking up the global community. They are a reminder of how far countries are still from stopping the global climate crisis. This year, however, there is much less attention due to the war in the Middle East.

However, most people don't notice what deals climate diplomats are working on throughout the year anyway. Often it is new climate targets, energy partnerships or the increase in aid for poorer countries.

Ahead of this year's COP, China has now made a first major impact with its long-awaited methane strategy. The greenhouse gas methane heats the atmosphere about 80 times as much as carbon dioxide (CO₂) over a 20-year period. For example, by extracting oil and gas, humanity ensures that methane is released into the atmosphere. If you add the emissions from factory farming, open-cast coal mining and landfills, you get the majority of the amount emitted. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), methane is responsible for around 30 percent of global warming compared to the pre-industrial era.

In order to finally get a grip on the underestimated number two greenhouse gases, 150 countries have joined an initiative of the USA and the European Union. At the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (2021), the Methane Pact was proclaimed, which aims to reduce methane emissions by 2030 percent by 30. China did not want to join the alliance, but nevertheless promised to work out a methane plan.

Making the invisible climate killer visible

Two years later, the People's Republic is now delivering. However, critics complain that the plan does not include firm targets for reducing these methane emissions. According to the document, the aim is to "effectively improve" methane monitoring and control systems in the five-year plan by 2025 and to "significantly improve" these systems in 2026-2030. To this end, the country wants to introduce technologies and standards for controlling methane emissions. With a share of more than 14 percent, China is by far the world's largest methane emitter.

Although the gas is so destructive for the climate, according to a study published in May in the journal One Earth, only about 13 percent of global emissions are currently subject to climate protection targets of countries. A team of researchers led by Maria Olczak and Paul Balcombe from Queen Mary University in London analysed 281 sets of methane emissions regulations worldwide and compared them with methane emission data. The researchers criticize the fact that methane reduction is still treated as an optional issue, not as a necessary measure. China's weak plan now seems to confirm this.

The European Union, on the other hand, is quite exemplary. It already presented a methane strategy in 2020. The aim is to reduce emissions of the gas by up to 2030 percent by 37 compared to 2005. In addition, emissions are to be systematically recorded for the first time, for example with the help of satellites and measuring devices on board aircraft, drones or road vehicles. The Earth observation satellite "MethaneSAT" – a joint project of an American environmental group and the New Zealand Space Agency – will also help to systematically search the Earth's surface for methane emissions. It is expected to be operational from spring 2024.

China-US rapprochement: a glimmer of hope for COP28?

Beijing released its methane plan last Tuesday after a four-day climate meeting with the United States. US climate envoy John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua met in California. The talks have been "successfully concluded," China's environment ministry said on Thursday. This is remarkable in view of the other fault lines between the superpowers. And even more hopeful is the announced meeting between the two heads of state Joe Biden and Xi Jinping next week Wednesday in San Francisco. The diplomatic skirmish leading up to COP28 could be decisive in determining whether the conference in Dubai moves forward or, as was the case last year, little progress is made in reducing emissions.

Such climate meetings between the two giants are by no means a matter of course. Since Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan over a year ago, diplomatic relations had cooled. In addition, there are other points of contention over trade or human rights. The tensions now seem to have been overcome to some extent, at least in climate diplomacy. For diplomats and long-time observers of the annual climate meeting, these preliminary talks are usually a kind of gauge of the negotiating atmosphere. Incidentally, probably the most prominent meeting took place in 2014 between Xi Jinping and Barack Obama, when China committed itself for the first time to reaching the peak of its emissions by 2030 at the latest. This, in turn, was an important step towards the agreement on the Paris Climate Agreement a year later.

The world does not need a new agreement. But there is definitely still room for improvement when it comes to adherence and implementation – in terms of the greenhouse gas methane and CO2.

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Stay confident,

Yours sincerely, Susanne Götze
Science Editor