By: Sullivan Stack
Summary. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the United Nations’ primary forum for discussing the scientific basis and effects of climate change. Founded in 1998, this organization serves to educate world leaders on climate change so that they may implement policies that could potentially slow or reverse climate change. In a report published in August of this year, the panel described the role that methane plays as a greenhouse gas and a contributing factor to rising atmospheric temperatures. Methane (CH4) is an abundant and naturally occurring gas that is present in large quantities both on and within the earth. Because of its recent popularity as an alternative to coal, it has become the leading fossil fuel for energy production in most of the United States. While methane is often held as being a far superior and cleaner alternative to coal, the damage that it has caused our climate extends far beyond the CO2 it emits when burned for energy. Despite making up an incredibly small proportion of the atmosphere, methane is approximately 80 times more potent of a greenhouse gas than CO2, and is thus the second leading contributor to rising global temperatures annually. However, because of this immense impact (relative to concentration) that methane has on the climate, it presents an exceptional target for world leaders looking to decrease their countries’ contribution to rising global temperatures. The report lays out many sources of methane that could be targeted to reduce this impact. While the largest single source of methane emissions is natural wetland areas, a significant quantity comes from agricultural and industrial practices. Rice paddy farming and livestock rearing are the two largest man-made sources of methane, with the third largest being fossil fuel companies. Furthermore, the report details how increasing global temperatures will create more favorable conditions for the microorganisms that produce methane in natural wetlands environments. This positive feedback loop has the potential to further increase the amount of methane released into the atmosphere, and will therefore increase global temperatures as well. With the true costs of methane production becoming clearer, it is vital that countries move away from these practices. Decreasing the demand for meat and rice would both present a massive decrease in methane emissions. However, developing countries represent a large percentage of these emissions and rely on both of these products to feed billions of people. For this reason, it would be much more beneficial to create regulations for oil and gas industries. Many of these companies are among the largest single-point sources of methane, and strictly regulating them would arguably be the easiest and most effective way of cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions. Even this partial decrease would likely stop the rapid increase in global temperatures and subsequent increase in methane production from natural sources.
Why we should care? Climate change is perhaps the largest threat facing humanity as we move further into the 21st century, and reducing methane emissions is an important step on the path toward combatting it.
This article particularly excels at communicating the data contained within the highly technical (and over 400-page) IPCC report on methane and the role it plays in climate change. In addition, the article expands on the ideas laid out by the IPCC, and even begins to offer some potential solutions to the problem of methane emissions. For example, by expanding on the idea that many of the nonpoint sources of methane production are relatively unknown, the article briefly explains how we are beginning to use satellites to better find these sources in areas where they might otherwise be unobtainable. This all serves to create an informative yet hopeful tone that is so often absent when talking about something as dire as climate change.
Science in Action.
Dr. Ilissa Ocko is a Senior Climate Scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).
Dr. Ocko's research focuses predominantly on using models to study the effects that aerosols and greenhouse gasses (also called short-lived climate pollutants) can have on the environment. She also studies how these types of pollution can be mitigated. Because of this, her work has led her to study methane extensively, and she has many publications on the relationship between methane and climate change. In her work at the EDF, she has also published numerous opinion articles on the need for methane to be addressed in governmental policy, including two directly discussing the IPCC climate report. Ocko is a particularly relevant scientist because she not only studies the effects that methane can have on the climate, she also is a scientific communicator who is passionate about explaining and clarifying research, such as the IPCC report, to the public and world leaders.