Global methane emissions increased more in 2021 than any year since measuring began in 1983, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In addition, for the 10th consecutive year, carbon dioxide emissions rose more than 2 parts per million.
Did you know that methane is the second biggest contributor to human-caused climate change after carbon dioxide? While methane is partly produced by the oil and gas industry, especially shale gas drilling, agriculture is actually the main source and produces over 25 percent of the total.
While many countries — including the U.S. — have gotten together to reduce methane, clearly success remains elusive. What more needs to be done? What, if anything, can we do as consumers to see effective change?
2021 Methane Study
Disturbingly, for the second year in a row, NOAA scientists determined that methane increased at a record annual level in the atmosphere. Methane is a powerful, heat-trapping greenhouse gas that warms the planet at an unsustainable rate.
NOAA’s preliminary analysis showed that methane went up by 17 parts per billion (ppb) in 2021, and it represented the biggest increase since such measurements began in 1983. Overall, the atmospheric methane levels averaged nearly 1,900 ppb in 2021, which is 162 percent greater than pre-industrial levels. Compared to the 1984–2006 period, NOAA scientists estimate that methane levels are 15 percent higher.
“Our data show that global emissions continue to move in the wrong direction at a rapid pace,” said Rick Spinrad, Ph.D., NOAA Administrator. “The evidence is consistent, alarming and undeniable. We need to build a Climate Ready Nation to adapt for what’s already here and prepare for what’s to come. At the same time, we can no longer afford to delay urgent and effective action needed to address the cause of the problem — greenhouse gas pollution.”
Top Sources of Methane
In 2020, methane (CH4) accounted for about 11% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. While methane’s lifetime in the atmosphere is much shorter than carbon dioxide (CO2), methane is more efficient at trapping radiation than CO2. Pound for pound, the comparative impact of methane is 25 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.
Top sources of methane include:
Domestic livestock such as cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats produce methane as part of their normal digestive process. Additionally, more methane is emitted when animal manure is stored or managed in lagoons or holding tanks. While not shown in the figure and less significant, emissions of CH4 also occur as a result of land use and land management activities in the Land Use, Land-Use Change, and Forestry sector (e.g. forest and grassland fires, decomposition of organic matter in coastal wetlands).
2. Energy and Industry
Natural gas and petroleum systems are the second largest source of methane emissions in the U.S. For example, methane is the primary component of natural gas (see our article about how gas stoves leak methane), while coal mining also contributes.
In fact, low-producing oil and gas wells that account for just 6 percent of total U.S. production account for half of the methane emitted from all U.S. well sites, a recent report showed. Coal mining is also a contributor.
3. Waste from Homes and Businesses
Methane is generated in landfills as waste decomposes and in the treatment of wastewater. In fact, landfills are the third-largest source of methane emissions in the U.S.
4. Natural Sources
Methane is also emitted from a number of natural sources, such as termites, oceans, sediments, volcanoes and wildfires. The No. 1 natural source of methane are wetlands, which emit methane from bacteria that decompose organic materials in the absence of oxygen.
How to Lower Methane Emissions
Over 100 countries came together recently to take the Global Methane Pledge, which targets an emission cut of 30 percent by the end of the decade. (Unfortunately, Russia and China, two major methane producers, refused to sign the pledge.)
Climate experts and diplomats alike have recently focused on controlling methane emissions because solutions are easier to accomplish as well as more quickly observed in the atmosphere. Simply, for the oil and natural gas industry, the equipment used to produce, store and transport the fuel needs to be upgraded to prevent leaks. (For example, Russia possesses some of the most poorly maintained pipelines in the world and they stretch for over 2,500 miles.)
Again, because methane can disappear from the atmosphere after only 9 years, efforts to stem its emission can be quickly fruitful.
In the agriculture sector, manure management practices need to be adjusted so manure can be reduced and captured properly, according to the EPA. Additionally, animal feeding practices — such as giving seaweed to cows to reduce methane — also need to be upgraded in order to reduce emissions from enteric fermentation. (Find out how a farm can help heal the planet by using sustainable, regenerative agriculture principles.)
Lastly, emission controls that capture landfill methane now exist and need to be implemented across the world in order to reduce methane.
But he said that “the need for speed should be motivating every climate scientist, every climate policymaker, every climate activist.” He said that slashing methane emissions represents “the single biggest, fastest and cheapest way to reduce warming in the near term.” He said it also lowers the cost “of climate mitigation and the cost of adaptation, and lowers reliance on learning how to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”
Yes, the good news is that control of methane is technically possible today. Because methane traps heat much more powerfully than carbon dioxide, reducing methane can have a major impact on slowing down the rate of climate change and global warming.
The quickest area of improvements include the fossil fuel industry that simply needs to upgrade its equipment and technology. It’s the same story with manure management in industrial farming as well as landfill management.
“Reducing methane emissions is an important tool we can use right now to lessen the impacts of climate change in the near term, and rapidly reduce the rate of warming,” NOAA’s administrator Spinrad said. “Let’s not forget that methane also contributes to ground-level ozone formation, which causes roughly 500,000 premature deaths each year around the world.”