Don't Ignore Methane

Credit: UN News


Methane is a rapidly accelerating part of the climate problem. It is the primary component of natural gas, and it warms the planet more than 80 times as quickly as a comparable volume of atmospheric CO2 over a comparable amount of time

Methane receives much less attention than carbon dioxide, but it’s recently been in the news due to the conflict in Ukraine and due to new research on leakage of the gas in the Permian Basin — a fossil fuel-rich part of the United States (US).

Although methane is rising in the atmosphere, there’s no consensus among scientists on how much methane is coming from various sources.

Why is Methane More Harmful?

  • Methane is an invisible gas that can significantly exacerbate the climate crisis. It is a hydrocarbon that is a major constituent of natural gas used as fuel to run stoves, heat homes, and also to power industries.
  • Methane can be thought of as a thicker blanket than carbon dioxide — one that is capable of warming the planet to a greater extent in a shorter period.
    • It has an immediate effect on warming the planet. However, unlike carbon dioxide which remains in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, methane exerts its warming effects for roughly a decade.
  • Methane pollution, which is a primary component of ground-level ozone and emitted alongside toxic chemicals such as benzene, has been linked to heart disease, birth defects, asthma and other adverse health impacts.

What are the Sources of Methane?

  • Biological Sources: There are biological sources of methane – it is made from some organic compounds by methane-generating microbes known as methanogens.
    • Methanogens are found in various natural environments where little or no oxygen is present.
      • Such environments include wetlands, landfills that are not well vented, and submerged paddy fields.
  • Agriculture: Agriculture is the predominant source of global methane emissions. Livestock emissions – from manure and gastroenteric releases – account for roughly 32% of human-caused methane emissions. Cows also belch out methane.
    • Paddy rice cultivation – in which flooded fields prevent oxygen from penetrating the soil, creating ideal conditions for methane-emitting bacteria – accounts for another 8% of human-linked emissions.
  • Emissions from Fuel and Industries: Fugitive emissions of methane from gas, coal, and oil sites are contributing to the climate crisis, but the extent of leakage of this potent greenhouse gas has been difficult to determine.
    • Methane leakage occurs at every stage of the supply chain from extraction and transport to use in homes and industries.
    • Much of the methane being released is due to “ultra-emitters”, which spew out copious amounts of the gas.

What has been Done to Curb Methane Emissions?

  • COP 26 Pledges: At COP26 in Glasgow, over 100 countries signed an agreement to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030 as methane might be easier to deal with than carbon dioxide (which is more deeply embedded in the global economy).
    • Ahead of this agreement, the US President announced the Global Methane Pledge, which is an US-EU led effort to cut methane emissions by a third by the end of this decade.
  • MethaneSAT: Controlling methane emissions will require further scrutiny of its sources. To this end, satellites that will track methane leakage such as MethaneSAT have been planned to launch.
    • MethaneSAT is a planned American-New Zealand space mission scheduled for launch later in 2022.
    • It will be an Earth observation satellite that will monitor and study global methane emissions in order to combat climate change.
  • UN Initiatives: The UN Food Systems Summit in September 2021 was also aimed at helping make farming and food production more environmentally friendly.
    • The UN’s Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture initiative is supporting the transformation of agricultural and food systems, focusing on how to maintain productivity amid a changing climate.
  • India’s Initiative: Central Salt & Marine Chemical Research Institute (CSMCRI) in collaboration with the country’s three leading institutes developed a seaweed-based animal feed additive formulation that aims to reduce methane emissions from cattle and also boost immunity of cattle and poultry.

What Measures can be taken Further to Reduce Methane Emissions?

  • In the Energy Sector: Methane emissions occur along the entire oil and gas supply chain, but especially from fugitive emissions from leaking equipment, system upsets, and deliberate flaring and venting.
    • Existing cost-effective solutions can help reduce emissions, including initiating leak detection and repair programs, implementing better technologies and operating practices, and capturing and utilizing  methane that would otherwise be wasted.
  • In Agriculture: The farmers can provide animals with more nutritious feed so that they are larger, healthier and more productive, effectively producing more with less.
    • Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has developed an anti-methanogenic feed supplement ‘Harit Dhara’ (HD), which can cut down cattle methane emissions by 17-20% and can also result in higher milk production.
    • When it comes to staple crops like paddy rice, experts recommend alternate wetting and drying approaches that could halve emissions.
      • Rather than allowing the continuous flooding of fields, paddies could be irrigated and drained two to three times throughout the growing season, limiting methane production without impacting yield.
        • That process would also require one-third less water, making it more economical.
  • In the Waste Sector: The waste sector accounts for around 20% of global human-caused methane emissions.
    • The cost-effective mitigation solutions with the greatest potential related to separating organics and recycling also have the potential of creating new jobs.
      • Upstream avoidance of food loss and waste is also key.
    • Additionally, capturing landfill gas and generating energy will reduce methane emissions, displace other forms of fuels and create new streams of revenue.
  • Role of Government: The Government of India should envision a food system transition policy to help its people grow and consume food differently.
    • Instead of working in silos, the government must develop a comprehensive policy that moves farmers to sustainable modes of plant-based food production, diverts subsidies from industrial livestock production and its associated inputs, and looks at job creation, social justice, poverty reduction, animal protection and better public health as multiple aspects of a single solution.

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