Although much of the focus in talks about global warming is on carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) may be even more important in the near term. The reason methane is important is because it is much more effective than CO2 at increasing warming. Even though it doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere. So while atmospheric CO2 may be around for hundreds of years, methane is a powerful factor now. Here are some facts and suggested steps to combating global warming by reducing methane production.
Notice that, while the latest COP26 conferences emphasized agreements by many nations to reduce methane emissions (for example, see my earlier blog), apparently Mother Nature hasn’t gotten the word. Not only has the level of methane in the atmosphere not decreased since then, it has accelerated, as has CO2.
Part of that acceleration is a result of warming-induced thawing of methane-rich peat marshes and tundra in polar regions. Another part is the result of lax management of fossil fuel and gas extraction, storage and transportation processes. Agriculture, particularly cattle, but also rice farming and wastewater treatment add to the total.
Regardless of the source, methane is about 85 times more powerful than CO2 in the near (20 year) term and about 30 times more powerful 100 years after its injection into the atmosphere. According to the UNECE three-fifths of global methane emissions are produced by humans.
Plugging the sources
The key to reducing atmospheric methane is in the paragraph above: reduce our collective activities in those areas. But you needn’t think that the problems are too big to be affected by individuals. All of these are suggestions for what you can do as individuals.
Stop the leaks
A couple of years ago I noticed the smell of gas when I was outdoors around my home. A little closer sniffing showed me that the smell was coming from the ground. As it turned out, my 40-year-old gas line (carrying methane) was leaking enough to be detectable by my personal odor sensor. I replaced the entire gas line with a new, plastic line. The smell went away and my gas bill decreased by almost half. So it seems that for the last decade or more not only was I steadily leaking methane into the atmosphere but also I was paying for it!
Now imagine this on a global scale, not just one household, and you can begin to see how some simple fixes can do much to slow the methane problem. I’d like to give some numbers here but we don’t really have a good idea about the scope of this problem. Yet decisions by individual households — plus similar action by the methane producers and pipeline utilities — can have a substantial effect at relatively low cost.
Of course an even more significant step would be to switch completely from methane to electricity for heating and cooking. My gas detection event outlined earlier had another consequence: I was forced to shut down the gas line until it could be replaced; a matter of months as it turned out. In the winter. The furnace in my home was gas powered, as was the water heater, the oven and the stove. So I quickly had an electric tankless water heater installed as well as electric space heaters for the rooms and a portable conduction stovetop for the kitchen. No methane required.
Well, the gas-powered furnace, oven and stove are still in use after the winter adventure but I’m seriously eying the thought of replacing the furnace with a heat exchanger and installing a full condition stovetop and electric oven. As above, imagine this change multiplied by several million and methane production and use will take another hit.
Politics might also play a role here. European Union countries, several of which are dependent on Russian gas for heating, are now seriously considering making the switch to electricity, drastic as it may appear, because of the invasion of Ukraine. Governments are realizing that it is not a good idea to be dependent on an unreliable or hostile source.
Eat less beef
Cows are major producers of methane from both ends of their alimentary canals. The solution to this problem is simple: less beef equals less methane. I frequently make pasta sauce with vegetable-based meat substitutes. They are delicious, if a tad more expensive than beef.
Pestering the pols
Although individual homeowner decisions can make a serious difference in reducing atmospheric methane, government and industry can make huge changes. The problem is motivation. They need to know that the public is very, very serious about global warming. Or, more to the point, they need to fear for their near-term political futures unless they get active in reducing or eliminating methane emissions now; this week; before the next election/merger. They need to be reminded of this, even in West Virginia, at frequent intervals.
Don’t just write to me, write and otherwise communicate that to them.