As a researcher who has been studying methane emissions for over five years, I often get asked the fantastic question, “Why methane?” There isn’t a singular answer, and for those curious, here are my top three reasons why methane is important, and why you should care about it too.
- Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas
These days, climate change and carbon dioxide (CO2) are synonymous. Although CO2 is a major contributor to climate change, it is not the only greenhouse gas causing the problem. Like CO2, methane also contributes to Earth’s warming, and on a global scale methane emissions rank second highest (after CO2).
When people say methane is a “powerful” or “potent” greenhouse gas, they mean that compared to CO2, it is much better at trapping the sun’s heat – at least 25 times better. To put this into perspective, pretend you are wrapped in a blanket. Imagine you are the Earth and the blanket is the atmospheric layer of greenhouse gases. The gas layer, just like the blanket, traps heat which keeps the Earth (you) warm. Emitting more gases into the atmosphere is like adding more blankets. Over a 100-year period, if adding x more CO2 to the atmosphere is equal to wearing 1 extra blanket; adding the same amount of methane is like wearing 25 extra blankets!
- Methane is a short-lived gas species
When greenhouse gases are released from natural and human activities, they don’t stay in the atmosphere forever. Rather, over several years they are removed by natural chemical processes. This process takes about 12 years for methane, which is significantly faster than it is for CO2 and other greenhouse gases. For the world to stop warming at the alarming rate it is now, we need greenhouse gas levels to stop rising as they have been since the beginning of the industrial revolution. On top of that, we also need existing levels in the atmosphere to start decreasing. This is why methane reduction is one of the most effective strategies for fighting climate change, because reducing methane emissions now means atmospheric levels will drop in the foreseeable future, and the effect will be more positive than if the same volume of CO2 were reduced. For this reason, I often say that reducing methane is a “better bang for your buck”. Given the short timeframe scientists estimate we have to halt irreversible climate change (~10 years), reducing methane becomes an essential component of the solution.
- Methane gas = Natural gas = $!
Natural gas is mainly methane gas, meaning that the methane released by human activities can be used as an energy source, and it has considerable worth. For example, the value of Canadian net exports of natural gas was $4.9 billion in 2019. This is important because, rather than just being a climate threat, methane is a useful product. Since methane has economic value, industries are more likely to capture and conserve it. It also offsets some of the costs associated with mitigating it, making methane one of the cheapest greenhouse gases to reduce.
In summary, if you care about climate change, you should also care about methane! Although methane emissions were historically overlooked in mainstream climate change news, the topic is trending more as of late, in part due to new regulations related to energy sector methane. That said, we must continue having important conversations around methane, since reducing it is cheap, relatively straightforward, and essentially the only way we will meet our climate goals outlined in the Paris Agreement.
(Image credit – https://www.livescience.com/39938-earth-had-oxygen-earlier.html)