Global methane emissions increased last year by the largest amount since measurements of the greenhouse gas began in 1983, a new government report said. It was the latest in a series of stark reminders over recent months that even amid growing public outcry to address the climate crisis, not nearly enough is being done to curb rising emissions of planet-warming gases.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a preliminary analysis Thursday that determined the concentration of methane floating in the atmosphere increased by 17 parts per billion in 2021, surpassing the previous record high increase of 15.3 parts per billion set in 2020, even as a global pandemic slowed much of the world’s economy.
Unlike carbon dioxide, which can remain in the atmosphere for centuries, methane only lasts for roughly 9 years. But the gas—which is the main component of natural gas and permeates the air from fossil fuel infrastructure, landfills and even farms with livestock—is far more potent at heating the planet than CO2. Over a 20-year period, methane traps about 80 times more heat than CO2, and about 25 times more over 100 years, scientists say. That makes methane the second leading driver of global warming, behind carbon dioxide, despite the fact there is far less of it in the atmosphere compared to CO2.
But methane’s outsized role in heating the planet, as well as its lifespan and where it comes from, also make it an excellent target in the fight to slow climate change, said Phil McKenna, who has reported on the significance of short-lived climate super-pollutants like methane for Inside Climate News for years.
“I’ve been covering methane emissions for years, and both scientists and policymakers tell me cutting methane emissions is one of the most effective ways to quickly combat climate change because of the gas’s potency and short atmospheric life,” McKenna told me.
It’s not entirely clear why methane emissions continue to surge, McKenna said, noting that the leading driver could be rising emissions from wetlands, oil and gas operations or agriculture—or it could be because the atmosphere’s ability to remove methane is decreasing. What is clear, however, is that research shows that there are areas decision-makers can target to quickly reduce methane emissions.
For example, McKenna said, roughly a third of human-caused methane emissions come from the oil and gas sector, meaning leaks coming from pipelines, oil and gas wells and other infrastructure could be pinpointed and plugged relatively easily and inexpensively.
Scientists from Stanford released a study in February that determined that the Environmental Protection Agency has been radically undervaluing just how much methane is heating the planet and that targeting the gas is critical to meeting global climate goals. Similarly, research has found that coal mines and even the stoves in your home are emitting far more methane than previously thought, underscoring the importance for governments to tackle the climate pollutant sooner rather than later.
Some progress has been made on international efforts to curb methane. Last November, during the COP26 global climate talks, more than 100 nations, including the United States, pledged to cut global methane emissions by 30 percent or more by 2030.
But climate campaigners noted this week that promises don’t equate to action. In the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released earlier this week, the United Nations panel lambasted governments and corporations who have vowed to drastically reduce emissions but have failed so far to do so. Emissions in 2019 were about 12 percent higher than they were in 2010 and 54 percent higher than in 1990, the report said.
“It is a file of shame, cataloging the empty pledges that put us firmly on track toward an unlivable world,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said regarding the report. “Some government and business leaders are saying one thing but doing another. Simply put, they are lying. And the results will be catastrophic.”
That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the findings of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration preliminary analysis, which found that global methane emissions increased by 17 parts per billion in 2021, which surpassed the previous record high increase of 15.3 parts per billion set in 2020.
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