Reducing Methane Is Crucial for Protecting Climate and Health, and It Can Pay for Itself – Yet Emissions Are Still Rising Fast, A New UN Report Warns

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Yves here. We’ve been writing for a very long time about the dangers of methane, particularly via featuring posts by Thomas Neuburger about fracking. Remember that the Obama Administration was all in for fracking despite considerable evidence of significant methane releases in connection with development. Bizarrely, the Obama Administration simply tried to ignore the climate impact (as well as the damage to aquifers). Methane has a different profile than other greenhouse gases, far more potent in the years shortly after its release, but less long lived. That means it’s still a serious climate and health hazard.

By Drew Shindell, Professor of Climate Sciences, Duke University. Originally published at The Conversation

Methane, the main ingredient in natural gas, is a larger climate problem than the world anticipates, and cutting its emissions will be crucial to slow global warming, a new United Nations report warns. The greenhouse gas is many times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the planet, and its concentration in the atmosphere is increasing faster than at any time since record keeping began in the 1980s.

Methane is much more than a climate problem, though, and this is where the report gets interesting. As methane emissions are reduced, the world reaps several benefits quickly, for health as well as the climate. In most cases, the benefits of taking action far outweigh the cost – in fact many of them make money.

The report’s lead author Drew Shindell, a climate scientist and physicist, explained the findings and the urgency.

What Are the Most Important lLessons from the Methane Report?

The top takeaway is that methane is going up very quickly, and it needs to drop by nearly half by 2030 to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 F) if we hope to stay on the lowest-cost path. That means we have a rapid U-turn to make.

The good news is that we have a lot to gain by cutting these emissions.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, but it’s also a precursor of surface ozone, which is a toxic air pollutant. So, reducing methane improves the quality of the air we breathe at the same time that it reduces climate change, and the results are almost immediate.

A NASA computer animation shows large sources of increasing methane emissions.

A lot of steps to reduce methane also save money, because methane is intrinsically valuable. If you capture methane from a landfill, you have a source of income right there. Capture it from leaking pipelines, and it pays for itself, because that’s the whole point of these pipelines – they transport methane as natural gas.

With the technology already available today, the world could cut methane emissions from fossil fuels, agriculture and rotting waste by 45% within a decade. That would avoid 0.3 degrees Celsius (0.5 F) of warming, which might not sound like much, but it’s one-fifth of the Paris climate agreement budget of 1.5 C.

So, you get climate benefits, you get public health benefits and it’s also a financial win for the companies capturing the methane.

It’s not like this is rocket science. A large part of the methane being released is from natural gas pipelines and storage, oil and gas pumping and landfills – and those are all problems we know how to fix.

How Does Cutting Methane Improve Health?

Methane causes ground-level ozone, which contributes to a lot of respiratory problems, including asthma in children, respiratory infections or chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder. There’s pretty robust evidence that it can also exacerbate cardiovascular disease.

Both methane and ozone are also greenhouse gases that cause warming, which creates more health risks, particularly through heat exposure.

We looked at medical research and modeling, and used that to figure out what’s at stake. We found that for every million tons of methane emitted, about 1,430 people die prematurely, there are about 4,000 asthma-related emergencies and 300 million work hours are lost to the health effects. To put that into context, around 370 million tons of methane are released annually due to human activities.

If you reduce methane emissions in 2022, you’ll see the ozone response in 2022, whereas you have to wait to see the climate effects until the climate system adjusts over at least a decade.

What’s Causing Methane Emissions to Rise So Quickly?

We know global emissions are going up. That’s easy to measure by chemical sampling of the air, and satellites can monitor large methane sources. But which sources are most responsible is a tougher question.

Global methane emissions were fairly level about 15 to 20 years ago, and then they started creeping up. Now, especially over the past five years or so, they’ve been rising at a fast rate.

Some studies point to the rise of hydraulic fracturing, which quickly expanded gas production and roughly parallels the recent methane increase. Others say livestock and the increasing global demand for meat played a big role. Some point to natural sources – particularly wetlands in the tropics responding to climate change.

The most likely scenario is that it’s a combination of all three.

The bottom line is that the overall methane emissions have to be lowered to slow climate change. If the increase is coming from fossil fuel or waste or livestock, then we need to go after the human sources. If it’s coming from natural systems that are responding to climate change, we still have to go after those human sources of methane. Cutting methane emissions is the strongest leverage we have to slow those feedbacks down.

If Cutting Methane Pays for Itself, and the Technology Exists, Why Isn’t More Being Done?

The oil and gas industry itself is divided on methane. Many of the big companies supported the U.S. methane emissions rulesthat were set by the Obama administration – and later rolled back by the Trump administration – because they know capturing methane pays for itself. It’s not an onerous economic burden on them, and supporting it can improve the image of the industry.

For small operators, however, the upfront costs of equipment and the need to hire labor to inspect the pipelines may be harder.

For example, if a company is going to repair a pipeline, it can close off a section, bring in a compressor, and pump all of the excess gas farther down the line before starting to work on it. Doing that requires getting a compressor and having the trucks to move it and the staff to maintain it. A lot of studies have found that these investments pay for themselves in a few years because of the value of the methane saved. But many small operators find it simpler and less costly for themselves to just vent the gas into the atmosphere when they want to work on the pipe.

There’s a similar problem with landfills and waste. As organic matter like food waste decomposes, it releases methane. Many landfills in developed countries already capture some of that methane gas. But many developing countries don’t have managed landfills or even trash pickup, making it impossible to capture the biogas.

The report lists a few recommendations, in addition to technical solutions, that can be used for landfills everywhere, including better waste sorting so organic material is kept out of landfills and used for compost instead, and reducing food waste overall.

Agriculture also has some straightforward solutions. Eating a healthy diet that, for many people, means cutting out excess red meat would go a long way in reducing the amount of livestock being produced for slaughter. Encouraging changes in food consumption can be politically dicey, but this is a huge emissions source. We’re not going to keep warming under 1.5 C without dealing with it.

What does this mean for natural gas as an energy source?

The report shows why adding more natural gas is incompatible with keeping warming to less than 1.5 C.

The only way to keep using natural gas far into the future is to pull carbon out of the air. That’s a huge risk, because it assumes we’ll make up for today’s harms later. If that technology turns out to be too expensive or not socially acceptable, or it simply doesn’t work the way we think it will, we can’t go back in time and fix the mess.

As the report explains, the world will have to stop building more fossil fuel infrastructure. The better route is to be responsible now and take care of the climate rather than counting on cleaning up the mess later.

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  1. Bob

    Good Report but fails to mention the constraints placed on these common sense ideas.

    Are natural gas losses written off as a loss on their taxes ? If so pipelines and oil / gas production is being paid to pollute.

    Further in some some states (notably NC) landfills are enjoined from serving more that one customer with the rational being that serving more than one customer would be creating a utility.

    So there are artificial constraints on controlling methane even though doing so would make economic sense,

  2. Tibbett

    Another one to watch is sulfur hexaflouride (SF6), the electric power industry’s preferred gas for switch gear used in the transmission and distribution of electrical energy. While releases are small (but growing), it is a potent greenhouse gas which has between 22,000 and 23,500 times higher global warming potential than CO2, and persists in the atmosphere for up to 3,200 years.

  3. Rod

    imo, we have a lot of issues growing on dwarfed trees that can be plucked fairly easily and in an uncomplicated way.
    Adjust your driving habits. Adjust your Indoor Air degrees down or up. Change the Bulbs.
    Those are tiny things you can do, and it will help–slow it but not solve it–but it will help(maybe more pyscologically than physically, as both are required) but We got Big System problems.
    We can change the Systems and get better results.
    Like feeding and finishing Cows a little differently.

    Cattle fed high-grain, low-forage diets produce 42% more methane than those fed-low grain, high-forage diets (Boadi et al.,2004). Methane (CH4) is composed of carbon and hydrogen. The formulation of diet influences the carbon: nitrogen ratio of manure, which impacts the amount of methane released. Diets high in grain have higher levels of readily fermentable carbohydrates, which create methane to be released into the atmosphere. Grain type can also change the amount of methane emissions. During the finishing phase, cows fed a corn-based diet released less methane than cows fed a barley-based diet (Beauchemin and McGinn, 2005).

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      One good reason for people to do the little things which individuals can do is so that the individuals actually doing them can see eachother doing them. They might coalesce into a culture of conservation living and then they might up-coalesce more firmly into a movement which might figure out how to find, know and organize its strength enough to conquer the ‘policy nodes’ of society so as to spread systemic changes around from those ‘policy power nodes’.

      Can enough millions of little individual actions in themselves have a big additive effect on broader social-economic developments? I see that Detroit is getting scared over millions of Millenials making millions of individual decisions to not get a car for a while, or maybe ever. Millions of separate actions having a single big-though-diffuse effect? I think that right there is a case of it happening.

      Hopefully the people doing their individual conservation living will ” live smarter not harder”. That means ” smarter not colder” in winter and “smarter not hotter” in summer, at least within limits. You may impress people by keeping your house at 50 degrees in winter and 90 degrees in summer, but you won’t inspire very many people to adopt that approach.

      There are cases where you can do the same thing with less energy input than you thought you needed.
      It takes a whole bunch of energy to hard-boil some eggs the traditional way. It takes a tiny fraction of that amount of energy to hard-steam the eggs instead, by putting the eggs in the pot, putting in 1/8th inch of water, bringing it to just-enough-steaming where the tiniest bit of steam just barely escapes between the pot and the lid, and then easing the heat just-enough-further-back so that the steam just-stops barely escaping. And let that contained steam hard-steam the eggs by dumping all its heat-of-fusion into the eggs, condensing on them and running back to the bottom of the pot and turning back into just enough steam to rise again and dump some more heat-of-fusion into the eggs. For example.

  4. upstater

    re. A NASA computer animation shows large sources of increasing methane emissions.

    For some reason the NASA animation skates across the globe and basically skips over the United States. It is darned good at focusing on Brazil, South Asia and China. In spite of the fact that North America shows as the third largest source in the bar charts, of which the largest component is oil and gas production. Must’ve had to pass muster with the White House before release…

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      South Asia, China and SouthEast Asia is where rice has been grown for thousands of years. And rice-marsh methane has been released for thousands of years. Rice methane is not the problem and never was.

      If there is a methane problem, it is new methane from somewhere else, and it is only the vast emissions of CO2 which have created such a “headroom-squeeze” that methane has been crowded into becoming a “problem”.

      So, yes . . . . focusing on methane from rice is a cynical diversion from real global warming problems.

  5. lordkoos

    I was about to leave the same observation as I thought it quite odd. The USA’s “blame everyone else” syndrome is in full effect in that video.

  6. EEarlK

    Every new report I have seen in the last five years either reveals a change in the levels released, or a new appreciation for the damage methane levels are causing. Are we in danger of discovery of large numbers of unknown unknowns?

  7. Roger

    The generally used metric of methane in terms of CO2 uses a 100-year period generally, thats how we get numbers like 36 times greater warming than CO2. This is highly misleading, as methane starts dissipating within 14 years (into water and CO2) and its immediate and 20-year impacts are much greater, about 100 times greater than CO2. The atmospheric level of methane (CH4) grew by 20ppb y-o-y in January, which is pretty much double the previous highs for yearly rises prior to 2020 (it rose 15ppb in calendar year 2020, so we are still accelerating).

    Given the intense short-term scale of warming of CH4 this could bust the planet straight through 1.5 and 2 degree limits pretty quick. We are at about 1.3 degrees already, and an El Nino (we are currently in a mild La Nina which tends to cool the planet slightly) raises global surface temperature by about 0.25C. We are well into the possibilities of feedbacks, including waterlogged permafrost, warming wetlands and lakes that tend to produce CH4 instead of CO2 due to the anaerobic conditions.

    Methane reacts with hydroxyl (OH) in the atmosphere in its decay process, and one very worrying possibility is that the atmospheric methane load may be overwhelming the supply of OH (there are also some other possible causes) – which would mean that methane will last much longer in the atmosphere. OH also tends to be lower around the poles, exactly where the waterlogged permafrost is.

    Each year we get deeper into the climate unknown, like walking in fog at the top of a cliff we have no idea where the edge is. This should be an all out state of emergency, but instead we get geopolitics, COVID, restoring growth and profit making etc. well ahead of climate change in the list of priorities.

  8. drumlin woodchuckles

    This report continues the deceitful and cynical conflation of livestock-on-grain-in-feedlots with livestock on pasture and range. Properly managed livestock on pasture and range are net-carbon-sequestering and this fact is becoming harder for the pro-petrochemical pro-Gates UN Corporate Mainstream Gaslighters to suppress.

    Rice in water-covered paddies always “released methane”. It was also part of a thousands of years old cyclical permaculture discipline. It biofixes its own nitrogen . When the water spreads over the paddy fields, all kinds of larval aquatic life spreads with it, and returns to the rivers as the water recedes to grow into edible-size fish, etc. This provides “free-for-the-catching” protein for the people involved in this agro-ecosystem.

    The effort to suppress paddy-rice-growing is an effort to suppress nitrogen bio-fixation for free and force the farmers involved to buy Haber-Bosch nitrogen to make up for the bio-fixed nitrogen which they are to be forbidden from producing for themselves. Exterminating all the aquatic larval life forms in order to exterminate the edible fish later in the cycle is designed to deprive the people involved of their traditional free-for-the-catching fish protein in order to force them to buy protein food because “markets”.

    The UN and its various academic henchcreeps are going to encounter their own ” Ambush at Credibility Gap” over the next few years because of reports like this.

  9. outside observer

    Joel Salatin of polyface farms has a lot to say on the topic of carbon sequestration via grazing as well, easily found by online search. Here’s one:
    Also see “it’s not the cow, it’s the how”
    I cringe when we look at one measurement such as methane without looking at the interplay of factors in the larger ecosystem – methane emission from farts but not dead zones in the oceans from fertilizer runoff. Nothing against scientists, and in no way to discount the effect of methane, but I’ve noticed in my relatively short lifetime that they tend to be myopic and single out one state of being for ‘correction’ or improvement and in so doing create much larger problems that nature doesn’t have a mechanism to deal with on our timescale.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Its certain kept corporate scientists who are the problem here. And certain ideologically motivated scienticians and scietismists and other gaslighters at Gates/Buffet/UN/ Corporate Globalonial Plantationary front groups and spin mills diverting, hey-squirreling, shiny-object-flashing and etc. against livestock on pasture and range in order to advance the World Economic Forum’s Fourth Industrial Revolution Agenda against agriculture.

  10. Tobin Paz

    Bizarrely, the Obama Administration simply tried to ignore the climate impact (as well as the damage to aquifers).

    Obama’s Secretary of Energy was Ernest Moniz:

    Frackademia study enshrined in official portrait of Obama Energy Secretary Moniz

    Moniz and his co-authors Anthony Meggs and John Deutch failed to disclose their conflicts of interest at oil and gas companies and consulting firms and advocated for positions that benefited their industry patrons, including the expansion of natural gas drilling and burning as a “bridge fuel” and the growth of exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG).

    The Obama administration adopted the pro-oil-and-gas policies advocated by Moniz and his co-authors, embracing fracking as part of Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy and permitting several new LNG export facilities. Now, the official commemoration of Moniz’s tenure at the Department of Energy includes a representation of the influential propaganda he produced with oil-and-gas-industry funding.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Obama was auditioning to be America’s first billionaire ex-president.

  11. Kathryn

    “Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, but it’s also a precursor of surface ozone, which is a toxic air pollutant.”

    No, no, no.

    As an environmental engineer who has worked in air quality in the oil and gas industry for years, this statement sets my teeth on edge.

    Methane (C1) is not a precursor of ground level ozone.

    The heavier hydrocarbons that are mixed with the methane when it comes out of the ground at the wellhead (C3+) are ozone precursors. They are regulated as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) by the Clean Air Act.

    By the time it reaches the consumer, the natural gas has been processed (separated into individual components, so they can be sold as separate products), so it’s pretty much just methane.

    Also, venting natural gas, i.e. our product, to the atmosphere without first reducing the pressure in the line? Who does that? That’s unheard of in this day and age. That seems insane when we are all over our equipment with infrared cameras and flame ionization detectors checking every connector, valve, and pump – tens of thousands of them – for leaks.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I hate to tell you that what you say is nonsensical verging on false.

      There are considerable methane leakages during the development process. Trying to say that that doesn’t happen is either ignorant or fracking-industry propaganda. Agnotology is a violation of our written site Policies. PlutoniumKun was politer about this than I am:

      Venting methane is very common as the gas has to go somewhere before you get your grid network in place, and you can’t do that until you establish that your well is viable. And of course it is vented all the time as a by-product of oil production. Obviously, when a gas field is in full operation its in the operators interest to keep leaks and venting to a minimum, but there are all sorts of reasons why it may be technically necessary (to release pressure, for example), or when its not viable to transport one of the by-products of the well (this especially applies to ‘wet’ gas which is high in things like butane and propane).

      I should state, btw, that often engineers have no idea what is actually going on in their own backyard, as while they are busy staring at their computers the foremen and site managers are busy doing what they deem to be the best thing for their operator. My brother is a retired offshore gas drilling foreman and he prided himself for having a ‘feel’ for the drill that no engineer could share. And don’t get me going on the differences between design engineers and field engineers (in almost any branch of engineering), they always end up talking past each other.

      Also, it should be said, I’ve been enough meetings where there have been absolutely firm assurances from the engineers that X will not be vented or released, but when you go out on site a few years later… well, its a different story.

      As for ozone, it took me 30 seconds to find this on a search engine:

      Methane (CH4) and tropospheric ozone (O3) are the two most important trace gases involved in global warming, after carbon dioxide (CO2). The concentrations of both of these gases have risen substantially during the industrial era, owing to the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels (IPCC, 2001). Their levels in the troposphere are closely linked via chemical reactions involving water vapour, and changes in the concentration of one will affect the concentrations of the other (Johnson et al., 2001, 2002). Oxidation of methane is responsible for the majority of the ozone formation in the troposphere (West and Fiore, 2005). Production of the hydroxyl radical (OH), which is responsible for almost all the oxidation of methane in the troposphere, is controlled by the levels of ozone. In this article, the feedbacks between methane and ozone will be explained, and the impacts of climate change via water vapour levels will be discussed.


      Ground-level, or tropospheric, ozone is produced by the interaction of sunlight with emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), volatile organic compounds (VOC) and methane (CH4). Comparison of ozone observations at the end of the 20th century with earlier data shows that over the last century levels of ground-level ozone in Europe have more than doubled. While short-term peak levels of ozone in Europe and North America have declined over the last few decades as a result of lowered NOx and VOC emissions, no such trend can be found for average long-term levels.

      Methane is not only a major source of ground-level ozone pollution, which damages human health and plants, it is also a significant contributor to global warming.

  12. Paul

    No mention of the massive methane emissions from the arctic, as the planet warmed it set off natural methane releases from swamp bottoms which were previously too cold. Surface bubbles 1000ft across in some area’s.

  13. Orville Morrow

    It is sad that so many scientists have been led astray by this whole burping farting cow meme. Climate change is caused by burning fossil fuels. Remember? Methane is a natural byproduct of life. That is why they call it natural gas. Leaking pipelines and flaring natural gas wells are not natural and that needs fixed but cattle and other ruminants can be part of the solution. Think about what is being proposed. Are we going to kill all of the cows? They will continue to burp and fart till we do. Do we get to eat them as we exterminate them? Then we have to exterminate sheep, goats and approximately 197 other ruminant species globally. At the dawn of civilization, before man had changed the earth. every ecosystem on earth was teeming with ruminants. In America it was deer and elk in the woods. bison and pronghorns on the plains and mountain goats in the mountains. All of them burping and farting away. It is conceivable that there were more ruminants then than now given the way we have degraded the earth. Ruminant methane is not new We need to keep our eyes on the real problem, fossil fuels!

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