Could Cop 28 produce a rare bow on the world stage for Turkmenistan?
As any climate crisis watcher worth their salt knows by now, planet-heating methane is pouring out of the gas-rich remote “hermit nation” at an alarming and immense rate. Satellite pictures prove it. Rarely responsive to the outside world, the Turkmen regime has been accused of fiddling while the world burns. And the Biden administration has spotted the opportunity for a diplomatic coup, deploying big guns including US top diplomat Antony Blinken and US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry to lay on the charm while at the same time attempting to give super-emitter Turkmenistan a kick in the gas.
So are the Turkmens responding to international pressure to get their act together in fixing their leaks? Some say so.
Things, however, should be a lot clearer by the end of this year's UN COP28 climate summit in Dubai, due to run for two weeks from November 30. As with the other nations guilty of emitting colossal methane pollution into the skies—including China, the US and Iran, the last of which is home to a troubling landfill that’s spewing about five tonnes of methane per hour into the atmosphere—there are hopes that the big gathering will produce real action in clamping down on methane, the second-most prominent greenhouse gas.
While more than 150 countries have since 2021 pledged to slash their methane emissions 30% from 2020 levels by 2030 under the US- and EU-led Global Methane Pledge, few have stepped forward with concrete plans on how they will achieve this.
The United Arab Emirates' COP28 presidency is calling for formalised efforts. Part of that will also be securing commitments from independent and national oil and gas companies to eliminate routine flaring by 2030. An early indication of a breakthrough here came this week when the UAE’s Dragon Oil said it would transition to zero gas flaring in Turkmenistan by 2027.
Though methane has more warming potential than carbon dioxide, it breaks down in the atmosphere within just years compared with decades for CO2. That means that an effective crackdown on methane emissions could have a relatively quick impact on limiting climate change and, what’s more, plugging leaks coming from sites such as pipelines and gas fields is not a tall order—it amounts to low-hanging fruit.
There appears to be a real thirst and a clear opportunity for big action, but will we get it from COP28?
"If it's just a pledge, it will land with a thump," Rachel Kyte, the World Bank's former climate envoy, told Reuters. "The UAE needs to commit companies and countries to sit down and negotiate a binding agreement to X-out methane."
It is anticipated that the World Bank, three sources familiar with the plans told Reuters, will during the summit launch a fund, with backing from independent oil companies among others, for methane detection and cleanup programmes in developing countries that are major methane emitters, such as Turkmenistan.
The UAE, the US and China are also scheduled to host a December 2 meeting for world leaders to discuss funding the World Bank scheme and other methane-focused efforts. Countries and philanthropies previously have committed roughly $200mn for tackling methane, but that’s less than 2% of all current climate financing.
Nearly a dozen satellites have been or will be launched into space this year to monitor the gas. A prominent contributor to the methane emissions science has been French climate tech company Kayrros, which at COP28 will launch an open-access live “Methane Map” for better tracking of emissions. It identified 1,005 methane super-emitter events worldwide in 2022, with 559 from oil and gas fields, 105 from coal mines and 340 from waste sites such as landfills.
Turkmenistan had the highest number of super-emitting events – some 184.
“They vent like crazy,” Christian Lelong at Kayrros told the Guardian.
Scientists have also revealed at least 55 “methane bombs” around the world, namely fossil fuel extraction sites where gas leaks from future production would emit methane levels equivalent to 30 years of all US greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Turkmenistan, which has the sixth-highest gas reserves in the world, is home to one of these major bombs (Yolotan South), giving it a place in a top 10 that also includes Texas, Louisiana, Canada, Russia (with three major methane bombs) and Qatar.