The Methane Mega-Mess: US Aims to Help Turkmenistan Plug Its Sky-High Emissions

Welcome to the wild world of climate negotiations, where heroes come in the form of diplomats and scientists, and villains are invisible, yet potent, greenhouse gases. There’s one country you probably haven’t heard much about in climate discussions: Turkmenistan, a central Asian nation that’s become infamous for its methane leaks. With the highest number of “super-emitter” events in 2022, Turkmenistan is not just a climate crisis contributor, but a significant player on a global scale.

Imagine the emissions of 67 million cars—this is the climate pollution equivalent of one of these “super-emitter” events. If that’s not a call to arms, what is? Thankfully, US officials have picked up the gauntlet and are deep in negotiations to help Turkmenistan curb these colossal methane leaks. Their hopeful timeline? A methane emissions ceasefire by November’s UN Cop28 climate summit.

Methane, the often-overlooked sibling of carbon dioxide, is responsible for 25% of global warming as of today. A frightening surge since 2007 puts us at severe risk of crossing the crucial 1.5C global heating threshold and triggering a climate catastrophe. But there’s a silver lining: tackling these methane leaks from fossil fuel sites can be one of the quickest, easiest, and most affordable ways to slash methane emissions.

John Kerry, the US special envoy for climate, has had talks with Turkmenistan’s president, Serdar Berdimuhamedov, highlighting the urgent need to address the country’s methane crisis. An agreement might involve US-provided financial support and expertise—an investment in our collective future.

Still, this is not a simple problem to fix. Turkmenistan’s methane emissions remained roughly constant from 2019 to 2022, according to satellite data. The country’s oil and gas, energy, transport, and other industries are said to be incorporating more environmentally friendly and resource-saving technologies, but the proof will be in the (reduced) emissions.

Turkmenistan isn’t the only offender. Satellite data shines a glaring spotlight on nations with significant methane leaks, including the US itself and Russia. The good news is, new regulations are coming into play in the US that will impose hefty fines for leaks.

In 2022 alone, methane leaks from just two of Turkmenistan’s fossil fuel fields had a greater global warming effect than the entire carbon emissions of the UK. This situation is so “mind-boggling” and “infuriating” that experts can hardly believe it. Much of the leakage comes from old and poorly maintained oil and gas pipelines, and also from venting—releasing unwanted methane gas into the atmosphere—a practice which could be relatively simple to halt.

It’s time for change, and the US is stepping up to help drive it. Cutting down methane emissions is vital to achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement. The focus isn’t only on Turkmenistan, but also on other major methane emitters like Russia, US, Iran, Iraq, China, Libya, Algeria, Venezuela, and Canada. If we can succeed in this, we’ll take a significant stride towards a safer, cooler future.