A landmark United Nations report has declared that drastically cutting emissions of methane, a key component of natural gas, is necessary to avoid the worst impacts of global climate change.

The report, published last week by the Climate and Clear Coalition and the U.N. Environment Programme, represents a shift in the worldwide conversation on how to best address the climate crisis, which has focused on longer-term carbon dioxide reduction.

While it lasts in the atmosphere, methane is 84 times more effective as a greenhouse gas compared to carbon dioxide. However, methane breaks down in a quarter of the time of carbon dioxide. This makes it a critical target for reducing global warming more quickly while simultaneously working to reduce other greenhouse gases.

More than half of global methane emissions come from oil and gas extraction in the fossil fuel industry, landfills and wastewater from the waste sector and livestock emissions from manure and enteric fermentation in the agricultural sector.

The world could slash methane emissions by up to 45% this decade, or 180 million tons a year, according to the U.N.’s Global Methane Assessment. Such a target will avoid nearly 0.3 degrees Celsius of warming by 2045 and help limit the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius, a goal of the Paris climate accord.

The report comes after methane emissions surged to record highs last year despite worldwide lockdowns during the coronavirus pandemic, according to research from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Methane emissions are also rising faster than ever since record-keeping began in the 1980s.

“Cutting methane is the strongest lever we have to slow climate change over the next 25 years and complements necessary efforts to reduce carbon dioxide,” Inger Andersen, executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme, said in a statement.

“The benefits to society, economies, and the environment are numerous and far outweigh the cost,” Andersen said. “We need international cooperation to urgently reduce methane emissions as much as possible this decade.”

The fossil fuel industry has the greatest potential for reducing global emissions at little or negative cost by repairing leaks from oil and gas infrastructure, the report said. It added that companies that prevent leaks and capture methane could profit while curbing methane release.

The report also pointed to the public health benefits of reducing methane, which is responsible for creating ground-level ozone, a dangerous air pollutant.

The 45% methane emissions reduction would prevent 255,000 premature deaths, 775,000 asthma-related hospital visits and 73 billion hours of lost labour from extreme heat and 26 million tons of crop losses each year, according to the report.

“We must tackle emissions not only from the energy sector, but also from landfills, agriculture, and abandoned coal mines,” Jutta Paulus, a Green Party member of the European Parliament, said in a statement.

“Setting aside dedicated funds for these super-emitters will be well-invested money on the path to reach our climate targets in 2030,” Paulus said.

A new study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters also said that cutting methane emissions from the oil and gas sector, agriculture and other human sources could slow global warming by as much as 30%.

Oil and gas extraction, processing and distribution account for 23% of emissions, while coal mining comprises roughly 12% of emissions, the report said. Agriculture and livestock emissions from manure and enteric fermentation account for about 32% of methane emissions.