Methane is a potent and fast-acting greenhouse gas. Compared to carbon dioxide, it’s in the atmosphere for a much shorter time (around a decade compared to centuries) but it’s very damaging to our climate once it’s there. As a potent greenhouse gas, it traps heat in the atmosphere that would otherwise go into space and that trapped heat contributes to warming our planet. 

What is methane?

Methane is known as a sneaky gas because it’s both colourless and odourless making it hard to see or detect. However, new technologies, such as methane-tracking satellites, are raising concerns about the accuracy of Australia’s methane measurement and the willingness of fossil fuel companies to stop leaks and releases. The International Energy Agency’s Methane Tracker recently reported that methane emissions from Australia’s coal mines and gas production could be more than 60% higher than what’s been reported in federal government estimates.

This is why rapid action to reduce methane is critical, globally and in Australia, to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees.

Fast facts:

  • Methane has over 100 times the global warming impact of carbon dioxide when it’s first released.
  • Over a 20-year time period, it is up to 86 times as potent as carbon dioxide.
  • New technology that reveals and measures methane leaks raises serious concerns about the accuracy of Australia’s methane measurements and the willingness of fossil fuel companies to stop leaks.
  • Australia can cut its fossil fuel methane emissions quickly through leak detection and repair, methane capture and other technology that’s available now.

What are some sources of methane?

Methane has multiple sources - some occur in nature, and others are directly related to human activity.

In nature, it’s released when vegetable matter is decomposed under water in swamps or wetlands, through the digestive process of termites, erupting volcanoes, or melting permafrost to name a few.

But human-related sources are where we can make a real difference in reducing methane.

In Australia, the two main sources of methane are the coal and gas industry and agriculture. The digestive functions of cattle and sheep (mostly through burping) are a major agricultural methane contribution. Waste treatment facilities and landfills also play a role, but a much smaller one.

But the most problematic human-based methane source is the coal and gas industry, where methane is released at almost every stage of production and combustion.

Even coal mines that have been abandoned and no longer produce coal, can still be significant sources of methane.

That’s because coal seams naturally contain methane, which seeps out once they are exposed.

When it comes to gas, methane is released during extraction, production, use and even transport where it leaks from pipes and infrastructure. Across the gas supply chain, methane is vented, flared and leaked -- all resulting in more methane in the atmosphere.

In many cases there are readily available, cost-effective solutions that could be implemented to curb these emissions. Ultimately, the best solution is for Australia to move away from coal and gas for domestic energy use and exports.

Why is it bad for the environment?

Nature relies on a safe climate. Yet, methane’s role in driving climate change means it is also responsible for increasingly severe weather extremes, droughts, fires, floods, sea level rise, and coral bleaching.

Climate change is stressing ecosystems including Australia’s amazing natural icons like the Great Barrier Reef. Climate change is also contributing to species extinction, putting our native species at risk, and threatening the animals, plants and places we love.

Methane is responsible for around 30% of the rise in global temperatures since the industrial revolution. The increase has accelerated in recent years, with the rise amongst the largest ever recorded annually since 2019.

According to methane analysts, Australia’s coal mine methane emissions in 2022 had the same climate warming impact as 138 million tonnes of CO2, and this is equivalent to the entire annual CO2 of a small European country such as the Netherlands.

Methane also affects air quality and health because it can lead to ground level ozone, a dangerous air pollutant.

According to many climate scientists, rapidly reducing methane emissions is regarded as the single most effective strategy to keep the 1.5-degree global warming goal within reach.

Australia is the world’s 6th largest coal mine methane emitter and on track to become the 3rd worst.

With new technology tracking global methane releases, Australia has been caught on camera with super emitting mines.

One of the latest examples is Hails Creek coal mine run by Glencore. Researchers with SRON Netherlands Institute for Space Research, found that Hails Creek emitted so much methane in a year that the mine had the same climate impact as the annual pollution from 4 million US cars.

This is not the first time Australian coal mines have grabbed the attention of methane trackers. A French geoanalytics firm, Kayrros SAS, found that for every tonne of coal produced in the Bowen Basin, an average of 7.5kg of methane is released which is 47% higher than the global average.

Another big concern is Australia’s pipeline of around 116 potential new coal and gas projects in various stages of approval. If even a fraction of these projects go ahead, they will be responsible for an enormous increase in methane. For example, the Scarborough to Pluto project is projected to emit an estimated 1.37 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (including methane) which has the pollution impact of 20,000 daily flights across the world for 25 years.

What does ACF want the government and industry to do about the problem?

Australia has signed the Global Methane Pledge and now needs to act on that commitment by contributing to the global goal of reducing methane emissions by at least 30% by 2030. The Pledge has been signed by over 150 countries and reaching the target could shave 0.2C from global warming by 2050, but that requires every country to make good on their commitment. Many countries already have national plans to reduce emissions completed or in development, but Australia is not yet one of them.

We need the Australian government to commit to a national plan so that we have a clear and measurable roadmap to reduce our methane emissions, while also improving the transparency and accuracy of Australia’s methane reporting.

Right now, too much methane reporting is based on broad estimates rather than actual on-site, verified measurements so we really don’t know exactly how much is being released into the atmosphere.

We need this commitment to result in reporting requirements that mirror global best practice so big methane emitters can be held to account.

It’s also important that methane is addressed in agriculture and livestock production. The good news is that efforts are underway - the Meat and Livestock industry has committed to be carbon neutral by 2030 and has developed a roadmap to get there. That’s not the end of the story and there’s still a lot of work to be done. But it’s good to see an action plan with direction and the right intentions from the sector.

Suzanne Harter

Climate Change Campaigner