Turkmenistan’s local methane emissions have a global effect.
This week, we explore methane emissions in Turkmenistan, what they are and what is being done about them; a concerning document leak ahead of COP26; and more extreme weather forecasts for Northern China.
Turkmenistan’s methane problem
Although we often give carbon dioxide the spotlight because it is the most emitted greenhouse gas, methane comes at a distant second place. CO2 can stay in the atmosphere 300 to 1,000 years while methane only stays there for 12 years, but methane is 25 times more impactful at trapping heat and causing global warming than is CO2.
Turkmenistan, a former Soviet republic at the western edge of Asia, bordering the Caspian Sea, is known as the “North Korea without bombs.” On top of its totalitarian government, its greenhouse gas emissions are going way out of hand, based on satellite imaging spectrometers that allow us to detect and measure greenhouse gas emission sources.
In early 2019, Canadian firm GHGSat Inc, which monitors emissions using such satellites, observed one of the largest releases of methane ever in real time, coming from Turkmenistan. That leak, which had been active for more than 5 years, came from one of the country’s many natural gas fields, specifically from a compressor station in Korpezhe. According to another monitoring firm, Kayrros SAS, which analyzed 50 of the most severe methane releases, Turkmenistan accounts for as many as 31 of these sites. The International Energy Agency found out that Turkmenistan, with just over six million inhabitants, is only behind Russia and the US in terms of overall methane emissions.
Despite having the fourth largest reserves of natural gas in the world below its surface, Turkmenistan has had a history of poor energy management during and since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90s. Perhaps the most iconic symbol of this mismanagement is a 70-meter wide crater — nicknamed the Gates of Hell (pictured above) — which has been burning since the 1970s after a drilling accident at a natural gas field. After the Soviets left, the country was ruled by dictators more focused on maintaining their power than re-developing the state-owned energy sector.
It’s also because of this politically opaque situation that the international community is worried about what it can do to manage Turkmenistan’s methane emissions. While global warming knows no political boundaries, most agree that it will be up to the current president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, to decide whether to take the emissions cut pledges seriously or not. That’s right, Turkmenistan is actually a party to the Paris Agreement and made pledges in 2016. It has yet to submit updated pledges for COP26, which it will attend this week.
Incentives to reduce emissions are made even harder because the Turkmen gas industry is in surplus. It has so much gas that certain energy consumption choices can seem unusual. In certain communities for example, for economical and practical reasons, citizens leave the stove burning all night because central heating was so poor while the gas was so abundant.
As for how this plays out with foreign buyers, the international community seems to be waking up to the poor emissions standards of Turkmenistan’s energy sector. In October 2020, French utility company Engie called off a $7 billion deal with Turkmenistan, a direct intervention from the French state which owns more than 23% of the shares. President Emmanuel Macron had been pushing for cleaner sources of supply.
Unlike France however, China seems to remain a faithful customer of Turkmen energy, in an effort to shift electricity production away from coal. Imports to China of reliable Turkmen natural gas are likely to increase, especially given China’s geopolitical turmoil with its other natural gas supplier, Australia, who halted shipments during a crisis over Taiwan.
Specifically, it’s within this relationship with China that some activists are seeing a way to pressure Turkmenistan into climate action. China has an incentive to have the Turkmen energy sector fix its leaks and avoid excess gas being vented uselessly; it could potentially use this fuel. And while it sounds like a lot of effort to set up programmes to recapture this gas, the UN Environment Programme’s assessment of global methane emissions released this year states that most of such projects could be done at little to no cost.
COP26 document leaks reveals the persisting weakness for fossil fuels of some nation-parties
BBC News reported that there is a huge document leak concerning the upcoming COP 26 showing that nations including Saudi Arabia, Japan and Australia have asked the UN to de-emphasize the need to move urgently from fossil fuels. It also shows that some developed countries raised the question of paying more to poorer countries to switch to greener technologies.
This kind of lobbying move leaves questions for the climate summit where countries will be asked to renew their climate change pledges to cap global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees celsius compared to pre-industrial times. The leaked documents are made up of more than 32,000 submissions made by governments, corporations and other parties to the team of scientists putting together a UN report with scientific evidence on climate change solutions.
Apart from arguments on fossil fuels, meat consumption is another topic spotted in the leaked documents. Brazil and Argentina, as two of the largest producers of beef and animal feed crops in the world, were strongly against the evidence brought up in the draft report that reduction in meat consumption is one of the core solutions to greenhouse gas emissions.
Brazil also disagreed with the statement from the report that “plant-based diets can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 50% compared to the average emission intensive Western diet”. It argued that instead of focusing on types of food, the levels of emissions from different production systems should be the main focus for the reduction of related emissions.
As one of the countries that has seen rapid increases in the deforestation rate in the Amazon and other forest areas, Brazil also went against the report’s claim that this is a result of changes in government regulations.
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Sustainable Asia’s podcast “GreenBites’’ is hosted by Chermaine Lee, Khoa Tran, Avery Choi and Stella Chen. Producer: Bonnie Au and Executive Producer: Marcy Trent Long Associate Producer: Rachel Li