Methane: It’s not your grandparents’ climate pollution
Slashing emissions of this under-the-radar greenhouse gas would shake up the climate fight.
The fight against climate change has long been focused on the need to slash carbon dioxide pollution. But there's another powerful gas we should be tackling alongside CO2: it's called methane.
Think of methane, the main component in natural gas, as CO2’s pesky younger sibling. It's often overlooked, but it can do some real damage in a short time.
Here's what you need to know about methane and climate change:
1. Methane hits the climate hard and fast.
Like carbon dioxide, methane is a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. It doesn’t linger for centuries like CO2, but it does heat up the planet quickly. In fact, methane has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after its release.
Even though we emit 100 times more carbon dioxide than methane, that seemingly small amount has a big impact on the climate. Methane is responsible for about 30% of the rise in average temperatures since the industrial revolution. We’re feeling the impact of that warmer climate right now, in more frequent and extreme weather disasters like droughts and floods.
2. Methane pollution is speeding up global warming.
Carbon dioxide, with its long, slow warming effect, determines how hot the planet will get in the long run. But methane is picking up the pace of warming with its rapid heating effect. The more methane pollution we produce, the faster the temperature rises. It’s speeding us toward a very risky climate future of more intense floods, heat waves, storms and droughts.
3. Cutting methane is our best opportunity to slow down climate change, fast.
Because methane acts rapidly to trap heat and also breaks down relatively quickly in the atmosphere, scientists say we can get fast climate results by reducing methane pollution. And we need to move fast to address the climate crisis. Even though the world is making progress on reducing carbon dioxide pollution from energy and transportation, every fraction of a degree in global temperature rise increases the risk of future extreme weather and disasters.
4. Methane doesn’t only come from cows — the oil and gas industry is also a major source of methane pollution.
Many people equate methane pollution with gassy bovines, and they’re not wrong. But methane pollution comes from a number of sources, including the oil and gas industry. And many emissions from this industry are fairly easy to reduce.
Methane is the main component of natural gas, which frequently leaks or at times is purposely released from pipelines and equipment throughout the oil and gas system worldwide. Once those leaks are located, most can be fixed simply by tightening valves or repairing leaky pipes.
5. The world has the technology to cut methane pollution in half by 2030.
Currently available technologies can cut methane pollution from all sources, including emissions from agriculture and livestock, fossil fuels and landfills, in half worldwide — if they’re rolled out quickly.
In fact, a global effort to do so could shave as much as a quarter degree off temperature rise by midcentury and half a degree by the end of the century. That fraction of a degree difference may seem small, but studies have shown that it can reduce the risks of potentially deadly climate impacts — like heat waves, flooding, rising sea levels, water stress and crop failures — for millions of people.
6. Help is on the way.
Methane emissions aren’t always easy to detect and trace back to a source. For example, oil and gas pipelines and infrastructure stretch across most of the planet, and methane leaks are odorless and invisible to the naked eye. But new methane detection technologies, using drones, aircraft and satellites, are beginning to reveal what was once invisible.
In the coming years, the world will have an entirely new system of methane detection and measurement that can locate leaks from all major methane pollution sources and hold polluters accountable for fixing them.
*Note on graph: The quantities shown were selected because 28 tons of carbon dioxide and 1 ton of methane trap the same amount of heat over a 100-year period.
Hope for a warming planet
Get the latest Vital Signs stories delivered to your inbox