Article / 07 Aug, 2014
Why Methane Matters

Two new signs of large natural methane gas leakages, which scientists on the spot are ascribing to warming conditions, underline the urgency of ensuring that human activity does not further increase the problem by pushing average global temperatures even higher.

Researchers from Stockholm University on the icebreaker Oden in the Arctic Ocean reported from the site  that "vast methane plumes" were rising from the ocean floor probably due to a tongue of warmer Atlantic water that is penetrating into the Arctic. The observation shocked the scientists on board who issued a press release. A recent news story on the Oden's mission also reflected their strong concerns.

Meanwhile, a crater spotted in the frozen Yamal peninsula in Siberia earlier this month was probably caused by methane released as permafrost thawed due to higher temperatures, researchers in Russia say. The science journal Nature carried a report of the finding.

The Problem with Methane

Methane is a greenhouse gas as is carbon dioxide. Human activity has increased the amount of methane in the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. Methane is particularly problematic as its impact is 34 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period, according to the latest IPCC Assessment Report. A significant source of human-made methane emissions is fossil fuel production. For example, methane is a key by-product of the rapidly rising global extraction and processing of natural gas. Other top sources of methane come from the digestive process of livestock and from landfills, which emit it as waste decomposes.

The Growing Response to Climate Change

The current level of response remains inadequate to keep the average global temperature rise below two degrees Celsius, beyond which expected climate change impacts become significantly worse. But action to curb human-generated greenhouse gas emissions is rapidly increasing at every level of government, business, cities and civil society as the many economic, social and environmental benefits of taking climate action become clear.

Governments under the UN climate change negotiations are working both to bridge this current "emissions gap" now and to agree a new, global climate change agreement in Paris next year which will come into force from 2020. To stay below two degrees, the new agreement must put economies on track to peak global emissions quickly and set the stage for necessary deep and sustained emissions cuts thereafter until the world reaches a state of climate neutrality as soon as possible in the second half of the century.

A leading example of action outside the UN process is The Climate and Clean Air Coalition To Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants (CCAC), a global partnership of cities, international organizations, NGOs and the private sector that is seeking to rapidly reduce SLCPs like methane and black carbon by improving waste management practices.

Collaborative work is ongoing to reduce SLCP emissions in the agriculture sector, the oil and gas industry and in cities. The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and its partner the Clinton Climate Initiative Cities programme are also working with the Coalition to assist urban areas in cutting methane emissions from across the waste chain, including from landfills and pollution linked with organic waste like food.

Photo by Steve Jurvetson