We all know what greenhouse gases are and what they do–the notorious molecules trap heat in the atmosphere which in turn provides living things with a suitable environment. Without it, the average temperature of the earth’s surface would be about –18 degrees Celsius. Carbon dioxide is the first greenhouse gas that comes to mind when talking about climate change. This makes sense as CO2 makes up 80 percent of U.S. emissions. But this also means that one-fifth of the U.S. emissions pie still remains. Second in prevalence is Methane, an incredibly potent and harmful greenhouse gas that’ global emission has risen steadily in the past decade and through the pandemic. Minimizing methane’s emission will be crucial in warding off the worst effects of climate change and preserving the livelihood of societies most vulnerable.
Constituting 10 percent of the United State’s and 20 percent of global emissions, methane is an incredibly potent and relatively abundant greenhouse gas. It is also the main component of natural gas, the fuel source that now sits as the world’s main energy source. Interestingly, over the 20 years after its release, a ton of methane causes 86 times more warming than a single ton of CO2; it packs an unfortunately large punch. Luckily, methane does not linger, with a half life of about a decade in the atmosphere. CO2, by contrast, remains in the atmosphere for hundreds of years.
The Climate and Clean Air Coalition therefore believes that cutting methane emissions in half over the next 30 years could shave 0.18 degrees Celsius off the global temperature in 2050. This difference would constitute 20 to 45 percent of the gap between current temperatures and the goal of stabilizing temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial averages.
A “landmark United Nations report” expected to be released next month will single out limiting methane emissions as essential to warding off the most extreme effects of climate change, according to The New York Times. The report will recognize the growing need to significantly reduce emissions in the short term, something of a departure from the majority of climate policies that have tended to focus on longer-term targets.
Where and how?
The EPA states that while methane emissions have a number of sources, the majority are from energy, industry, agriculture, land use and waste management activities. Livestock “belch” as part of their normal digestive processes. When this is combined with manure emissions, the agriculture sector is the largest source of CH4 emissions. To solve this, manure management practices can be improved to reduce their impact, and modifications to animal feeding practices have been suggested. One study published by UC Davis suggests feeding cattle a particular seaweed may reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 82 percent! Even with the advent of a magical seaweed diet, however, methane emissions represent another strong reason to consider reducing your cow meat consumption.
Cutting methane is our best shot at slowing climate change now:
The pandemic actually cleaned the skies–there was a clear drop in air pollution in 2020. But there’s a catch:The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced in late 2020 that methane spiked upward with the “highest growth rate in NOAA’s 37-year record.” What’s happening here? As mentioned earlier, methane differs in that it’s not a byproduct of burning fossil fuels. The fossil fuel industry is indeed a major emitter of methane, but only when systems are unkempt and leaking. Satellites show large plumes of methane coming from oil and gas fields in the U.S. Interestingly, Saudi Arabia’s producers show almost none. We know these leaks can be avoided. But, this recent uptick mostly stems from waste and agriculture, slices of the economy that were largely constant during the pandemic.
The UN assessment will reassert the cost-benefit justified argument of mitigating methane emissions, demonstrating that a genuine global effort could greatly reduce emissions within the decade, and that the majority of solutions have low or negative costs.
As the world’s largest emitters emerge from the COVID-19 disaster, continuing to shift focus onto climate action will remain crucial. Taking advantage of lower-hanging opportunities like methane mitigation will prove to be an incredibly powerful lever to slow climate change over the coming decades. Committing to a global mobilization to reduce methane while restrengthening post-COVID will make a truly meaningful difference.