Rising methane levels add fuel to climate change threat

SINGAPORE – Emissions of the powerful greenhouse gas, methane, have reached a record, a global analysis has found, driven in large part by mankind’s unrelenting demand for beef and energy, particularly liquefied natural gas (LNG).

Methane is a key component of natural gas and is far more effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide (CO2), the main greenhouse gas. So while there is a lot more CO2 in the air, adding methane is like pouring fuel on a fire and is giving climate change an extra kick.

Methane is a key component of natural gas and is far more effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.
Methane is a key component of natural gas and is far more effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.PHOTO: REUTERS

The Global Methane Budget, published this week in the journals Earth System Science Data and Environmental Research Letters, studied the growth of the gas in the atmosphere from 2000 to 2017, the latest year for which global data is available. It also studied the “sinks”, where methane is destroyed over time in the air and soils.

The analysis revealed nearly 10 per cent growth in methane emissions over the study period and that about 60 per cent of all emissions are man-made, mainly from agriculture and fossil fuels. The remainder comes from wetlands and other natural sources.

The relentless rise in methane is bad news because, combined with growing CO2 emissions, the world is on a path to warm by around 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Making deep cuts in both, and soon, can help the world avert increasingly severe storms and droughts and faster sea level rise.

“The controversy is who is the worst offender in terms of methane growth in the atmosphere – is it cows or the fracking guys?” said Dr Pep Canadell, executive director of the Global Carbon Project, which conducted the nearly four-year analysis in collaboration with nearly 70 institutions globally.

“As this paper shows … agriculture is still more important – there are still more emissions from farming than fossil fuels,” Dr Canadell, one of the study’s authors, told The Straits Times from Canberra on Friday (July 17).

He said livestock, particularly cows and sheep, were the single largest source of mankind’s methane emissions, driven in part by the growing middle-class demand for meat. Rice farming is another major source of methane, along with manure, wood burning and bush fires, even termites.

Ruminant animals, such as cows, burp out a lot of methane during digestion of their food. One way to tackle this has been to feed cows supplements that cut down the amount of methane they produce.

Surging demand for natural gas and, until relatively recently, coal, have also been big drivers. Methane comes from coal mines, leaky gas pipelines, as well as oil and gas wells, even household cooktops.

Methane emissions grew quickest in three regions: Africa and the Middle East; China; and South Asia and Oceania, including Australia, said the study.

Dr Canadell said a surge in coal use and coal mining up to 2013 caused methane emissions to jump in China, when coal use there largely plateaued. Since then, the explosive growth of LNG production and consumption has helped accelerate levels of the gas in the atmosphere.

Methane matters because it is so effective in trapping the sun’s heat, warming the earth 28 times as much as the same mass of carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.

Put another way, methane levels in the air have grown 2.6 times since 1750 and that increase has contributed about 23 per cent to the additional warming accumulated in the lower atmosphere since that year, the scientists involved in the study said.

The good news is that methane does not last very long in the atmosphere – about 9 years before it is broken down, versus the lifetime of centuries to thousands of years for CO2.

“Reducing methane emissions is therefore recognised as an effective option for rapid climate change mitigation,” the scientists said.

Fixing leaky pipelines and oil and gas wells as well as overhauling agriculture are all vital steps to reduce methane emissions. Another piece of good news is that there are solutions for agriculture, including rice farming techniques that reduce methane production from paddies.

But Dr Canadell has doubts the natural gas sector’s methane emissions will drop in the near term given the demand for energy.

That will also likely mean CO2 levels from the natural gas sector will continue to grow, challenging the notion that LNG is a cleaner “bridging gas” that will help mankind shift away from dirtier coal to help fight climate change.

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