“Acting now to reduce methane emissions will have immediate benefits for the climate… — The Environmental Defense Fund”
We need to hurry if we’re to slow global warming.
But why would we want to only slow warming, rather than completely stopping it?
We must do both, of course, but trying to reverse the current warming trend is a long-term project. It will take at least until 2050 to cut global greenhouse gas emissions to nearly zero. It will likely take much longer to remove our prior emissions from the atmosphere. And we don’t have that kind of time to prevent global climate chaos from becoming “the new normal.”
Which brings us to methane — because drastically curbing our methane emissions is the easiest and fastest way to slow warming, buying us precious time for tackling the larger problem of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
To understand why, we must look at the roles CO2 and methane, the primary greenhouse gases, play in warming. CO2 constitutes about 79% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, while methane accounts for just 11%.
But although we emit far less methane than CO2, methane’s “global warming potential” — the amount of heat it can trap — is, pound for pound, 80 times that of CO2 when it first enters the atmosphere. However, over the course of 12 years, methane breaks down in the atmosphere — but mostly it turns into CO2, which can stay airborne for hundreds of years. Thus, methane’s overall global warming potential over the course of a century is still 30 times that of simple CO2. Also, we keep emitting more methane, replenishing and gradually adding to its supply at its original potency. To date, methane has been responsible for a whopping 30% of all global warming.
There is some good news. Because there is much less methane than CO2 emitted, containing it could require fewer resources. Also, 54% of American methane emissions are from just three sources: Fossil-fuel infrastructure (35%); landfills (16%); and buildings (3%). Although these sources are widely distributed, they are relatively easy to pinpoint, and therefore amenable to repair or the capture of escaping emissions.
For example, much of the fossil-fuel industry’s methane emissions are from leaky pipes or storage facilities and improperly capped abandoned wells. These sources can be found and fixed. Similarly, much landfill methane can be captured and used to power the very waste facilities emitting it. The smaller, but still important, role of methane from buildings — where it’s usually called “natural gas” — can be greatly reduced by repairing pipes, but also by adjustments residents can make to their lifestyles, a topic we’ll explore in upcoming posts.
Finally, according to a 2022 International Energy Institute report, “Based on recent elevated natural gas prices, almost all of the [alternative energy] options to reduce emissions from oil and gas operations worldwide could be implemented at no net cost.”
We should note that 41% of U.S. methane emissions are from widespread agriculture sources. Agricultural emissions are likely to subside only incrementally and gradually as agricultural practices evolve. So, because we need quick results, we should primarily target the “low hanging fruit” of fossil-fuel infrastructure, landfill and building emissions.
While these facts about methane have been known for decades, controlling its emissions only recently has been seen as key to slowing climate change. Fortunately, the current U.S. administration has taken note and is leading the way, pushing in 2021 for international rules and agreements on methane reduction, and in 2022 passing the Infrastructure Investment and Inflation Reduction Acts with their strong methane mitigation provisions, while empowering the EPA to establish a new Methane Emissions Reduction Program.
Unfortunately, instead of adjusting their business models to help slow global warming, most fossil-fuel companies are pushing back, hard — a topic we’ll explore in upcoming posts.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared previously in other publications as part of an ongoing series called “Your Ecological House,” written by Philip S. Wenz, the publisher of Firebird Journal.