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What’s going on with methane?

25th Feb 2022
What’s going on with methane?

(Credit: Robert S. Donovan/Creative Commons)

Methane emissions surpassed 1,900 parts per billion (PPB) last year, and the unprecedented rate of increase has scientists worried. Over-emission of greenhouse gases could lead to runaway warming by creating a feedback loop that emits even more.

Recent data published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA*) shows that a lot of methane is being leaked from non-human sources, such as microbial activity in wetland areas.
Methane (CH4) comes from a variety of sources, including agriculture and livestock (think cow belches), landfills (decomposing matter), and fossil fuel extraction (fracking).

Though many times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2) methane does not last as long in the atmosphere.

Warming global temperatures could unleash trapped methane under Siberian permafrost, as well as methane hydrates along the ocean floor. This is an important reason for keeping temperatures close to pre-industrial levels because releasing large amounts of methane at once could create the feedback loop of warming that scientists fear.

Last May, a 4,320-square kilometre sheet broke off from Antarctica to become the world’s largest iceberg, a troubling sign in the fight against global warming. Thawing permafrost can also create wetlands where microbes that release methane thrive.

In 2020, the European Commission Science Hub published data projecting wetland methane emissions increasing by between 50-80 per cent by the end of the century under a business-as-usual scenario where no action is taken to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
What are policymakers doing?

At last November’s United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, 111 countries signed onto the Global Methane Pledge, which aims to reduce methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030.

The pledge is 2 pages long and mentions that nations will work with the private sector. However, it does not specify what direct actions countries will take to reduce their methane emissions.
In November of last year, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it would take steps to closely monitor and curb emissions from oil and gas extraction sites.

The Biden administration recently announced the formation of “an interagency working group to coordinate the measurement, monitoring, reporting and verification of greenhouse gas emissions and removals,” as part of the US Methane Emissions Reduction Action Plan, unveiled at COP 26.

While it is easier to publicly justify closer scrutiny of the fossil fuel industry, the Wall Street Journal reports that methane emissions from the agricultural sector have largely got a pass from governments. In the US, political leaders consider the importance of the industry and fear the outsized farm lobby’s wrath.

New-tech for monitoring methane emissions

European satellite data revealed that a lot of the world’s human-emitted methane comes from oil and gas extraction sites in the US and Central Asia. National Public Radio reports that “The European Space Agency launched an instrument three years ago called the TROPOspheric Monitoring Instrument (TROPOMI) that can measure the methane in any 12-square-mile block of the atmosphere, day by day.”

Methane leaks are notoriously common and under-reported, and companies sometimes vent gas purposely before doing repairs and maintenance. Advancements in satellite technology allow for the detection of smaller leaks.

The Environmental Defence Fund plans to launch its methane-detecting satellite in 2023. Monitoring methane emissions via satellite can make leaks easier to detect and keep countries accountable for meeting their emissions reduction pledges.

Methane is a greenhouse gas that comes largely from natural sources. It does not stay in the atmosphere for as long as carbon dioxide. However, that does not mean that it should undergo less scrutiny when considering how much it contributes to climate change.

Since it has the potential to increase temperatures at an accelerated rate, governments should consider innovative solutions to target the issue, including subsidising sequestration technology research and city-wise composting systems.

Some farmers in the US are even incentivised to capture the methane produced from their livestock’s waste. The oil and gas industries have reportedly reduced their methane emissions, while agriculture is treated as an industry that cannot be expected to undergo reform.

Technological advancements in monitoring bring hope to those who do not trust governments or the private sector to accurately report on their emissions. However, bringing transparency to the reporting process and a willingness to tackle the more difficult issues could stave off temperature increases that could be disastrous on a global scale.

* The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is an American scientific and regulatory agency within the United States Department of Commerce.

(Graph: NOAA)

Sarah Sakeena Marshall,
Korea Economic Institute Intern, American University’s School of International Service,
The Muslim News Environmental Columnist

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