Methane emissions threaten to make climate go haywire

From ToxicLeaks

A report led by French scientists Marielle Saunois and Philippe Bousquet1 was released on December 12th 2016, and reveals extremely worrying news : methane concentrations in the atmosphere have increased sharply in the past decade. The problem is that methane is an extremely dangerous gas because its ability to contribute to global warming is even bigger that carbon dioxide, although its lifespan is somewhat shorter. This report proves that the fight against climate change is extremely insufficient and that activities that until now had been overlooked need to be targeted by stringent policies in order to curb the methane that they emit every year. However, while fossil fuel companies are going to try to spin this news to make it seem like carbon emissions aren't the main issue anymore, one must keep in mind that carbon emissions are actually responsible for a part of these methane emissions and that the goal of reducing carbon emissions must not be forsaken even though new goals must also target a reduction of methane emissions. And this new more comprehensive policy must be defined quickly if we are to keep a small chance of stopping the process of global warming ! This means that citizens all around the world are going to have to stand up to the lobbying power of all the companies and activities responsible for both carbon and methane emissions !

An incredible rise in methane concentrations in the atmosphere[edit | edit source]

The report brings extremely bad news : the concentration of methane in the atmosphere is growing and this growth is faster and faster ! Around 2000, the concentration of the gas in the atmosphere only grew at a rate of about 0.5 parts per billion, but during the following decade, that growth started getting faster and faster and in 2014 and 2015, the concentration has risen extremely quickly with a 12.5 parts per billion increase in 2014 and a 9.9 parts per billion increase in 2015 ! This is terrible news because it questions whether the climate change scenarios are realistic or not. Up until now, methane was only the second contributor to global warming, way behind carbon dioxide. But as carbon emissions are beginning to slow down and methane emissions are going through the roof, global warming is poised to become more of a methane issue than a carbon issue. Indeed methane is even more dangerous than carbon dioxide because of its higher greenhouse effect power.

Methane is an extremely dangerous global warmer[edit | edit source]

Why is this report such bad news for the efforts to mitigate global warming ? Because methane is a greenhouse gas, and an even more powerful one that carbon dioxide. Over a century, the global warming power of a given amount of methane is about 28 times higher than the same amount of carbon dioxide. And methane doesn't remain in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide, which means that on a short term basis, the global warming power of methane is even higher, scientists estimate that power at around 84 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over a period of twenty years. When one realizes that the concentration of methane in the atmosphere has grown from 700 parts per billion before the industrialization to 1840 today, it becomes quite clear that methane emissions are a main issue and one can only wonder why it has taken so long to see that. The obvious answer is that recognizing this issue goes contrary to the economic interests of big energy and agriculture corporations throughout the world. Companies like Exxon have known about the contribution of carbon dioxide to global warming for decades and have still spent hundreds of millions of dollars to lobby against scientific research and climate change mitigation policies. It goes without saying the companies responsible for these methane emissions are doing everything they can to prevent the elaboration of policies that would damage their bottom line.

Human caused methane emissions have been overlooked by climate change policies[edit | edit source]

A huge part of the methane emissions is caused by human activity, more specifically fossil fuel production and use, agriculture, waste and biomass burning. Altogether, these activities amount to 2/3 of the methane emitted into the atmosphere. According to the scientists that conducted this report, the increase in carbon emissions mainly comes from agriculture and waste management. According to Robert Jackson, one of the scientists that co-authored the report : "The best evidence suggests an important contribution from biological sources, particularly agriculture". The emissions from agriculture come from the digestive process of cattle – basically cow burps. And because countries like the U.S eat so much meat and in particular so much beef, these emissions are skyrocketing. Major meat packing companies like Tyson foods, Cargill Meat, JBS USA or National Beef Packing are partly responsible : they rake in billions of dollars every year while methane emissions grow. However, agriculture may not be the only culprit responsible for the methane emission increase. Robert Howarth, a professor at Cornell University, claims that the rise in emissions is not consistent with the recent drop of cattle population, and he believes that the increase is actually caused by the energy sector : "in the U.S. there's been a huge increase in shale gas, and the signature for shale gas can look a lot like the signature from a cow". Indeed many emissions also come from leaks in methane like the Aliso Canyon leak that released about 100,000 tonnes of methane into the atmosphere, making it the worst gas leak in the history of the US. So fossil fuels corporations are here again one of the main culprits and their carelessness when it comes to making sure their activities don't pollute the environment.

Natural caused methane emissions are in part the result of global warming, which means carbon emissions[edit | edit source]

Of course, not all methane emissions are caused by man. Some of them stem from natural phenomena like gas leaking out of natural faults in oceans or escaping the earth when permafrost melts. But in the case of methane, the same question that was asked of carbon emissions and global change must be asked : is mankind doing something that is increasing these natural methane emissions ? The answer is yes, undoubtedly. Global warming is affecting Arctic areas and melting the permafrost, which leads to the release of enormous amounts of methane. The spike in methane emissions in the last decade happened at the same time large areas of permafrost thawed in the Arctic areas, as was pointed out in a study led by Merritt Turetsky of the University of Guelph, Ontario. This is a very slippery slope, because this phenomena can create a feedback loop, in that the additional global warming caused by the emitted methane will in turn inevitably cause more permafrost areas to thaw, thus increasing emissions. So in effect, since even these “natural” emissions can be traced back to global warming, which has been brought about by human activities, and mainly by the suicidal rate of fossil fuel consumption that Exxon, Chevron and BP would have us maintain, it's pretty clear that fossil fuel corporations are at least partly responsible for this situation and should be tried for the danger they have exposed us all to.

The news of the spike of methane concentration in the atmosphere is grave indeed. It proves that global warming is happening for good, and that the most pessimistic predictions might actually fall short of the danger we are facing. This news also proves that the policies of climate change mitigation have been insufficient so far, because they haven’t targeted activities like agriculture or waste management, that emit a lot of methane. However, this report also proves yet again the terrible consequences of the activities of fossil fuel corporations. Not only do they contribute to methane emissions directly, but they also increase “natural” methane emissions by their carbon emissions, which warm up the atmosphere and hastens the thawing of permafrost in the Arctic areas, releasing giant amounts of methane.

1Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l'Environnement, LSCE-IPSL (CEA-CNRS-UVSQ), Université Paris-Saclay 91191 Gif-sur-Yvette, France