Top researchers warned on December 12 that a decade-long surge of the potent greenhouse gas methane threatens to make the fight against global warming even harder. They wrote in the Environmental Research Letters journal, summarizing the findings of a consortium of 81 scientists, claiming that additional attention is urgently needed to quantify and reduce methane emissions.
After rising slowly from 2000 to 2006, the concentration of methane in the air climbed 10 times more quickly the following decade, according to that study, which was published in the peer-reviewed Earth System Science Data. The unexpected, and largely unexplained, increase was especially sharp in 2014 and 2015. The researchers referred to the goal set in the 196-nation Paris climate pact, which entered into force last month. Keeping global warming below two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) is already a challenging target, they added.
They further said that such a target would become increasingly difficult if reductions in methane emissions are not also addressed strongly and rapidly. With only 1 C (1.8 F) of warming above pre-industrial era levels so far, the world has seen an uptick in extreme weather, including droughts, superstorms, heat waves and coastal flooding boosted by rising seas. On current trends, average global temperatures are on track to jump by more than 3 C (5.4 F) by 2100, even if national carbon-cutting pledges annexed to the Paris Agreement are honored. Without those pledges, the increase would be much higher.
To date, efforts to keep the planet from overheating have focused mostly on the main greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, a by-product of burning fossil fuels that accounts for at least 70 percent of warming. But even as CO2 output has started to plateau, methane (CH4), which is responsible for about 20 percent of the increase in global temperatures, is soaring. Indeed, the pace of recent emissions aligns with the most pessimistic scenarios laid out by the UN’s top science authority, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. CH4 is 28 times more efficient at trapping the sun’s heat. As with carbon dioxide, Earth naturally absorbs and releases methane.
But industrialization and a surging human population have upset a longstanding natural balance, leaving an excess of both heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. Even if scientists agree that total emissions of methane are rising sharply, they remain uncertain as to why. Today, some 60 percent of methane originates from human activity, the rest coming from wetlands and other natural sources. About a third of human-generated methane is a byproduct of the fossil fuel industry. Researchers point to a surge in coalgenerated power in China, along with leakage from the natural gas fracking boom in the United States.
Marielle Saunois, lead author of the editorial as well as the review, and an assistant professor at the University of Versailles Saint Quentin, observed that both these regions are thought to play a role in the sudden hike. But coal-fired plants and leaks from gas production are not sufficient, and do not jibe with the dramatic increase in the last two years, she said.