According to a preliminary analysis led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), increases in atmospheric methane hit a new record in 2021, averaging 1,895.7 parts per billion (ppb) during last year – which is 15 percent higher than in the 1984-2006 period, and around 162 percent greater than pre-industrial levels.
Although carbon dioxide remains the biggest contributor to anthropogenic global warming, methane is roughly 25 times more powerful at trapping heat in the atmosphere, and thus has a major short-term impact on the rate of climate change. This gas is emitted by oil and natural gas production, as well as by livestock farming and wetlands, whose microbe-rich soils are ideal for naturally producing and emitting methane.
In November, 2021, over 100 countries signed a “Global Methane Pledge” to cut methane emissions by 30 percent until the end of this decade. However, some major emitters such as Russia and China have not signed this pledge yet, and NOAA’s analysis suggests that even in countries that signed it, the rates of emissions remain extremely high.
“Our data show that global emissions continue to move in the wrong direction at a rapid pace. The evidence is consistent, alarming, and undeniable,” said NOAA administrator Richard Spinrad. “Reducing methane emissions is an important tool we can use right now to lessen the impacts of climate change in the near term, and rapidly reduce the rate of warming.”
Since a large part of methane emissions originate from unintentional leaks from industrial wells and pipelines, fixing these problems should be relatively easy. “Reducing methane emissions from fossil fuel is an important step, and a low-hanging fruit to reduce atmospheric methane levels,” said Xin “Lindsay” Lan, a research scientist at NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory.
“The latest increases in methane concentrations reinforce the critical importance of reducing human-caused methane emissions if we are going to slow the rate of increase in warming,” confirmed Steven Hamburg, a chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. “There is agreement in the scientific community that the majority of methane emissions are human caused and account for more than a quarter of the warming we are currently experiencing.”
However, other factors such as the massive rains in tropical areas that have flushed huge quantities of methane from wetlands, or the major role livestock play in methane emissions, could be more difficult to control and mitigate. Nevertheless, slashing these emissions as much as we can remains the fastest and cheapest way to reduce global warming in the short term.