Methane Emissions Reach Historic Highs

A visualization of global methane on January 26, 2018. Red shows areas with higher concentrations of methane in the atmosphere. Image: Cindy Starr, Kel Elkins, Greg Shirah and Trent L. Schindler, NASA Scientific Visualization Studio

New research has found that global emissions of methane have reached the highest levels on record. As the San Francisco Chronicle reported, the data shows that the rate at which methane is now being released into the atmosphere, much of it from belching cows and leaky oil and gas wells, tilts the odds toward a worst-case climate scenario — the warming of 3 degrees Celsius or more by 2100.

The findings are outlined in two papers published July 14 in Earth System Science Data and Environmental Research Letters by researchers with the Global Carbon Project, an initiative led by Stanford University scientist Rob Jackson.

Why This Matters: Methane is a highly potent greenhouse gas—about 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Additionally, about 20% of the warming our planet has experienced can be attributed to methane. But methane emissions are within our control–we can choose to eat less meat and to commit to a rapid transition to clean energy. This new research shows that business as usual is leading us straight off a cliff as far our global emissions reduction goals are concerned.

Cause to Be Alarmed:This completely overshoots our budget to stay below 1.5 to 2 degrees of warming,” said Benjamin Poulter, a research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Poulter is an author on both studies.

Rob Jackson further explained that the amount of methane released into the atmosphere since 2000 is roughly equivalent to adding 350 million more cars on the road. As NBC News reported, in 2017 alone, methane emissions from agriculture rose by nearly 11 percent from the 2000-06 average, while methane from fossil fuels jumped by nearly 15 percent compared to the early 2000s. Jackson also noted that we “We still haven’t turned the corner on methane.”

Where’s It All Coming From?: Phys explained that throughout the study period, agriculture accounted for roughly two-thirds of all methane emissions related to human activities; fossil fuels contributed most of the remaining third. However, those two sources have contributed in roughly equal measure to the increases seen since the early 2000s.

The New York Times wrote that methane emissions grew quickest in three regions: Africa and the Middle East; China; and South Asia and Oceania, including Australia.

  • A surge in coal use caused methane emissions to jump in China, while population growth and rising incomes have led to more emissions elsewhere, the scientists said.
  • The United States has led a significant rise in methane emissions from North America. About 80 percent of the total increase for the region was driven by fossil fuels, underscoring the environmental fallout of America’s shale boom.

Interestingly enough, Europe stands out as the only region where methane emissions have decreased over the last two decades, in part by tamping down emissions from chemical manufacturing and growing food more efficiently.

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