The COVID-19 pandemic temporarily reduced the level of carbon dioxide in the air. However, strict quarantine protocols failed to decrease methane levels. A new study found that methane emissions increased to a record high, despite the suspension of many industries.
The highest levels of methane on record were unveiled by scientists at Stanford University, a private research university in the US. They determined that methane emissions continue to climb between 2000 and 2017. They expressed concern because methane gas could trap heat better than carbon dioxide. As such, they recommended ways to budget methane emissions and methane sinks. They published their findings in the journals Earth System Data and Environmental Research Letters.
The Two Major Greenhouse Gases
When the topic is about gas emissions, there are two main greenhouse gases (GHGs) people must know. These are carbon dioxide and methane – both capable of trapping heat inside Earth, which contributes to global warming. If the emissions of these gases are regulated, the planet will have more time to naturally cycle them. Through natural cycles, Earth prevents sudden spikes in global temperature, protecting living organisms from extinction.
While most people are aware of carbon emissions, only some know what methane emissions do in the atmosphere. Compared to carbon dioxide, methane is more efficient in trapping heat and more difficult to track down. This is because methane can be emitted by natural sources as well. If methane levels in the atmosphere are very high, global temperatures will rise faster than what carbon emissions can do.
According to the Environmental Defense Fund, a US-based nonprofit environmental website, environmentalists are very concerned about the steady rise of methane gas in the atmosphere due to heat-trapping potential. Methane can trap heat 84 times better than carbon dioxide. The gas alone can induce global warming. Fortunately, methane does not linger in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide. With that knowledge, communities should not allow methane to accumulate in the atmosphere at irreversible quantities.
Reports from the World Economic Forum, an international organization based in Switzerland, showed that the agricultural industry greatly contributes to methane emissions, specifically, the animal farming sector. Cattle farms could contribute at least 5,024 million tons of carbon dioxide emission equivalent. It was followed by pigs at 819 million tons, chickens at 790 million tons, buffalo at 766 million tons, small ruminants at 596 million tons, and other poultry at 82 million tons of carbon dioxide emission equivalent.
Meanwhile, German portal for statistics Statista highlighted the biggest greenhouse gas emitters in Europe. In 2017, Germany had the highest carbon dioxide emission equivalent in the continent at 667 million tons. It was followed by the UK with 310 million tons, Poland at 291 million tons, Italy at 260 million tons, France at 237 million tons, Spain at 218 million tons, the Netherlands at 150 million tons, and the Czech Republic at 83 million tons. These figures included carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide gases, but excluded emissions from households.
Methane Emissions Likely Soared During the Pandemic
When COVID-19 outbreaks rose in numerous cities worldwide, governments were forced to implement strict public quarantine protocols to slow down the spread. That led to the temporary closure of various industries deemed as nonessentials. A few months later, governments had to make a choice: continue the strict protocols or ease some to restart the economy. The latter was the option to maintain quarantine rules while gradually re-enabling businesses. Sadly, many businesses were forced to shut down permanently due to staggering financial losses.
During that time, carbon dioxide emissions were decreased substantially for a short time. Most emitters, such as ground vehicles and factories, were closed that contributed to the atmospheric carbon reduction. But methane emissions remained consistent across the board even with lockdowns. One reason us the continued use of products related to methane emissions. Recently, a team of scientists found that global methane emissions in 2017 reached a new record.
“There’s no chance that methane emissions dropped as much as carbon dioxide emissions because of the virus. We’re still heating our homes and buildings, and agriculture keeps growing,” said Rob Jackson, the lead author of the study and professor of Earth system science from the School of Earth, Energy, and Environmental Sciences at Stanford.
In the study, the team utilized two approaches to precisely measure methane emissions globally. They applied both the top-down and bottom-up approaches to the available data, dated from 2000 to 2006 and 2017. The data comprised of satellite and surface observations, however, there were data constrained to surface observations only. The data highlighted the sources of methane gas, including wetlands, permafrost soils, biogenic oceans, landfills and waste, rice cultivation, and fossil fuels. Also, natural sinks of methane like soil were included in the data.
Analyses revealed that methane emissions from agricultural sources were almost 11% higher in 2017, compared to the average between 2000 and 2006. While the emission and usage of methane from fossil fuels in 2017 were nearly 15% higher than between 2000 and 2006. In terms of regions, methane emissions were significantly higher in Africa and the Middle East, China, and South Asia and Oceania. All three regions were estimated with 10 to 15 million tons of higher methane emissions per year in the study period. The US was found with 4.5 million tons higher methane emissions, correlated to the production and consumption of natural gas. Only Europe showed decreased methane emissions attributed to policies aimed to reduce emissions from manmade sources.
In the Global Methane Budget 2017, the total methane emissions averaged at 592 million tons. Out of that, the average emissions from natural sources were only 190 million tons from wetlands and 39 million tons from other related sources. About 108 million tons were from fossil fuels, 227 million tons from agriculture and waste, and 28 million tons from biomass and biofuel burning. The average uptakes of methane sinks were 531 million tons by atmospheric chemical reactions and 40 million tons by soils. Overall, the average total uptake of methane sinks was 571 million tons, which indicated an average atmospheric methane growth of 16.8 million tons.
Scientists recommended policies to curb methane emissions from manmade sources. Policies like lowering fossil fuel use, managing leaks from pipes and wells, changing the feeds of cattle, and regulating rice production and consumption could help prevent the annual increase in methane emissions.