It’s time to freak out about methane emissions
In the public conversation about climate change, methane has gotten too little attention for too long. Many people may be unaware that humans have been spewing a greenhouse gas that’s even more potent than carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at a rate not seen in at least 800,000 years. It harms air quality and comes from sources as varied as oil and gas pipelines to landfills and cows. But methane and other greenhouse gases, including hydrofluorocarbons, ozone, nitrous oxides, and sulfur oxides, are finally getting the attention they deserve — thanks largely to advances in the science.
Until the past few years, methane’s relative obscurity made sense. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is by far the largest contributor to climate change, and it comes from recognizable fossil fuel sources such as car tailpipes, coal smokestacks, and burning gas and oil. The most troubling part is that it sticks around in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, making climate change not just a problem for us now, but generations well into the future.
But the world no longer has the luxury of overlooking methane. And at the 26th international climate conference in Glasgow, which runs until November 12, a major new initiative was launched to address methane head-on. More than 100 countries, representing nearly half of global methane pollution levels, committed to a voluntary Global Methane Pledge of reducing levels by at least 30 percent by the end of the decade. President Joe Biden, who is co-leading the initiative with the European Union, announced a suite of regulatory actions that aim to bring the United States in line with that global target.
Some of the largest methane polluters, including Russia and China, have not joined the global pledge. It’s just one sign that the world still hasn’t fully heeded scientists’ wake-up calls on methane.
Even though methane is not nearly as well understood as carbon dioxide, it’s playing an enormous role in the climate crisis. It’s at least 80 times as effective at trapping heat as carbon dioxide in a 20-year period, but it starts to dissipate in the atmosphere in a matter of years. If this is the “decisive decade” to take action, as the Biden administration has said, then a methane strategy has to be at the center of any policy for tackling global warming.
Drew Shindell, one of the scientists who raised an early alarm about methane, was studying air pollution in the late 2000s when he found a strange trend. Ground-level ozone, the pollutant that forms hazy smog, was rising in the US — which surprised him after decades of progress under the Clean Air Act. He realized the “relentless growth in methane,” which accelerates the formation of ozone near the ground, was to blame. Ever since, he’s been trying to warn the world not to overlook this dangerous pollutant and its costs to both the climate and human health.