Methane, Climate Change’s Secret Agent

(3BL Media/Just Means) - ​While there is considerable awareness of the role of methane in global warming, any person who is vaguely aware of the causes of climate change will probably name carbon as the major culprit, and not methane. And that’s for a good reason, too, as carbon is the biggest and most prominent part of the problem.

But … methane is a formidable climatic nightmare as well, and one that gets scarier as new IPCC calculations have increased its Global Warming Potential (GWP) in relation to carbon to 34 times - it used to be estimated at 23 and even less. How we interpret the impact of methane on climate change depends on a long- and short-term view of climatic changes.

This is because methane has a shorter atmospheric time (carbon, on the other hand, can hang around for hundreds or thousands of years). But since the time we have to ensure temperatures do not exceed a 2°C increase above pre-industrial levels is short, short-term damage is worrying, too.

With these facts in hand, it is clear that methane constitutes a highly concentrated and severe threat to immediate global temperatures. Major sources of human caused methane emissions include the decomposition of waste in landfills, livestock production, and fossil fuels. In nature, methane can be released by the melting of polar ice and from the ocean, which harbours huge amounts of methane in the sea floor in the form of solid methane hydrates. Climate warming could cause the hydrates to destabilize and escape into the atmosphere, further accelerating climate change.

Sustainability NGO Global Green USA recently released a new report about the relevance of methane to the climate change debate. The organization recommends we reduce the landfilling of food scraps and other organic materials, which are important sources of man-made methane.

Elsewhere, the UN’s Livestock Environment and Development highlights the role that livestock plays as a source of methane. The agency says that the sector generates 35 percent of methane caused by human activities as well as 65 percent of human-related nitrous oxide, which is 296 times more hazardous than carbon.

Although the science on methane is not 100 percent clear, it is absolutely clear that action needs to be taken to mitigate the worst effects of climate change and the so-called tipping points, which could prompt dramatic shifts in biological and geophysical systems. Complacence means we may be taking firm action a tad too late.

We can all do our share to help reduce methane emissions to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Surely enough, macro action by governments and corporations count more, but as citizens we must show we care and promote a cultural shift in our communities.

Image credit: FAO