Study Suggests Fossil Fuel Use Emits Up to 40% More Climate-Heating Methane Than Previously Thought

Study Suggests Fossil Fuel Use Emits Up to 40% More Climate-Heating Methane Than Previously Thought

Flames from a flaring pit near a well in the Bakken Oil Field. The primary component of natural gas is methane, which is odorless when it comes directly out of the gas well. (Photo: Orjan F. Ellingvag/Corbis via Getty Images)

The lead author said that one positive implication of the research is "if we can reduce our emissions, it's going to have more of an impact."

A study published Wednesday in the journal Nature found that extraction and use of fossil fuels may emit up to 40% more climate-heating methane than previously thought—underscoring humanity's ability to significantly limit global temperature rise by rapidly transitioning to renewable energy.

While methane doesn't stay in the atmosphere nearly as long as carbon dioxide, it is 84–87 times more potent over a 20-year period. The latest update from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in November 2019 showed that globally averaged concentrations of the top two greenhouse gases increased in 2018.

"If we stopped emitting all carbon dioxide today, high carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere would still persist for a long time," explained University of Rochester researcher Benjamin Hmiel, lead author of the new paper (pdf). "Methane is important to study because if we make changes to our current methane emissions, it's going to reflect more quickly."

Hmiel's team focused on emissions of fossil methane, "which has been sequestered for millions of years in ancient hydrocarbon deposits." As Carbon Brief reported:

These are most commonly associated with the extraction and transport of fossil fuels—such as leaks from coal mining and flaring from oil and gas drilling—but they have "natural" sources as well.

There are four main ways that fossil methane escapes into the atmosphere naturally. These include onshore seeps (including oil and gas seeps, mud volcanoes, and gas-bearing springs), submarine (offshore) seeps, "diffuse microseepage" from oil and gas-bearing sedimentary rocks, and geothermal and volcanic formations.

The new study suggests that the amount of methane being emitted in these natural ways has been overestimated.

Specifically, the researchers concluded from examining air bubbles in ice cores from Greenland that "natural" fossil methane emissions are about 10 times lower and emissions from human activity—namely, fossil fuel use and extraction—are 25–40% higher than previous research has shown.

Their findings, Hmiel told Carbon Brief, suggest that "almost all fossil methane in the atmosphere today is from anthropogenic emissions originating from the extraction and use of fossil fuels." However, he added, that also "puts more of the emissions under our domain and agency."

As the lead author put it in the university's statement: "I don't want to get too hopeless on this because my data does have a positive implication: most of the methane emissions are anthropogenic, so we have more control. If we can reduce our emissions, it's going to have more of an impact."

Although he was not involved in the new research, Joeri Rogelj concurred with Hmiel in a statement. Rogelj, a lecturer at the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, was coordinating lead author of a major climate report the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published in October 2018.

"This new study brings both good and bad news for our ability to keep global warming in check," Rogelj said Wednesday. "The bad news is that this study shows that human activities might well be responsible for a much larger share of the increasing methane concentrations in the atmosphere."

The good news is that this study "shows us where we can act on climate change," he continued. "Measures and policies to eliminate methane emissions from fossil fuels are well known, and in many cases even make sense from a narrow economic perspective. They range from eliminating leaking pipes, reducing or improving flaring, and evidently also a shift away from the extraction and use of fossil fuels towards renewable energy sources."

"What this study shows is that we can have a bigger impact on methane in the atmosphere than earlier thought. This allows us to set climate policy priorities right," Rogelj added. "Together with bringing down carbon dioxide emissions to zero, keeping methane emissions to as low as possible levels will result in stabilizing global warming. Trying to reverse our global warming contribution will require us to draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere."

Despite the optimistic response to the research from Rogelj and some other experts, a scientist who spoke with ScienceNews Wednesday indicated that more work needs to be done to understand methane emissions from human activity:

[S]uch ice core–based work is not yet proven to be the most accurate technique to estimate natural geologic emissions, says Stefan Schwietzke, an environmental scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund who is based in Berlin. The ice core information is useful because it gives an immediate global snapshot of methane emissions, but "it has the challenge of interpretation and a lot of very complex analysis," Schwietzke says.

Direct measurements of methane emitted from different seeps or over mud volcanoes suggest much larger natural emissions, he adds. The problem with this method, however, is that it's difficult to scale up from local measurements to a global number. "To really understand the magnitudes, these two methods need to be reconciled. That hasn't happened yet."

Schwietzke and other researchers have proposed using airborne remote sensing to try to reconcile the two techniques. Airborne measurements can give a bigger-picture estimate, while also identifying local hot spots. Scientists have already been using this work to identify sources such as leaking pipelines, landfills, or dairy farms. Similar projects are tracking methane emission hot spots in Arctic permafrost.

Ultimately, despite the debate over technique, Schwietzke agreed that human activity has dramatically increased atmospheric methane in recent decades and "reducing those emissions will reduce warming."

About The Author

Jessica Corbett is a staff writer for Common Dreams. Follow her on Twitter: @corbett_jessica.

This article originally appeared on Common Dreams

books_causes

enafarzh-CNzh-TWdanltlfifrdeiwhihuiditjakomsnofaplptruesswsvthtrukurvi

follow InnerSelf on

facebook-icontwitter-iconrss-icon

 Get The Latest By Email

{emailcloak=off}

LATEST VIDEOS

Methane Emissions Hit Record Breaking Levels
Methane Emissions Hit Record Breaking Levels
by Josie Garthwaite
Global emissions of methane have reached the highest levels on record, research shows.
kelp forrest 7 12
How The Forests Of The World’s Oceans Contribute To Alleviating The Climate Crisis
by Emma Bryce
Researchers are looking to kelp for help storing carbon dioxide far beneath the surface of the sea.
Tiny Plankton Drive Processes In The Ocean That Capture Twice As Much Carbon As Scientists Thought
Tiny Plankton Drive Processes In The Ocean That Capture Twice As Much Carbon As Scientists Thought
by Ken Buesseler
The ocean plays a major role in the global carbon cycle. The driving force comes from tiny plankton that produce…
Climate Change Threatens Drinking Water Quality Across The Great Lakes
Climate Change Threatens Drinking Water Quality Across The Great Lakes
by Gabriel Filippelli and Joseph D. Ortiz
“Do Not Drink/Do Not Boil” is not what anyone wants to hear about their city’s tap water. But the combined effects of…
Talking About Energy Change Could Break The Climate impasse
Talking About Energy Change Could Break The Climate Impasse
by InnerSelf Staff
Everyone has energy stories, whether they’re about a relative working on an oil rig, a parent teaching a child to turn…
Crops Could Face Double Trouble From Insects And A Warming Climate
Crops Could Face Double Trouble From Insects And A Warming Climate
by Gregg Howe and Nathan Havko
For millennia, insects and the plants they feed on have been engaged in a co-evolutionary battle: to eat or not be…
To Reach Zero Emissions Government Must Address Hurdles Putting People Off Electric Cars
To Reach Zero Emissions Government Must Address Hurdles Putting People Off Electric Cars
by Swapnesh Masrani
Ambitious targets have been set by the UK and Scottish governments to become net-zero carbon economies by 2050 and 2045…
Spring Is Arriving Earlier Across The US, And That's Not Always Good News
Spring Is Arriving Earlier Across The US, And That's Not Always Good News
by Theresa Crimmins
Across much of the United States, a warming climate has advanced the arrival of spring. This year is no exception.

LATEST ARTICLES

Two-thirds Of Glacier Ice In The Himalayas Could Be Lost By 2100
Two-thirds Of Glacier Ice In The Himalayas Could Be Lost By 2100
by Ann Rowan
In the world of glaciology, the year 2007 would go down in history. It was the year a seemingly small error in a major…
Rising Temps Could Kill Millions A Year By Century’s End
Rising Temps Could Kill Millions A Year By Century’s End
by Edward Lempinen
By the end of this century, tens of millions of people could die each year worldwide as a result of temperatures rising…
New Zealand Wants To Build A 100% Renewable Electricity Grid, But Massive Infrastructure Is Not The Best Option
New Zealand Wants To Build A 100% Renewable Electricity Grid, But Massive Infrastructure Is Not The Best Option
by Janet Stephenson
A proposed multibillion-dollar project to build a pumped hydro storage plant could make New Zealand’s electricity grid…
Wind Farms Built On Carbon-rich Peat Bogs Lose Their Ability To Fight Climate Change
Wind Farms Built On Carbon-rich Peat Bogs Lose Their Ability To Fight Climate Change
by Guaduneth Chico et al
Wind power in the UK now accounts for nearly 30% of all electricity production. Land-based wind turbines now produce…
Climate Denial Hasn't Gone Away – Here's How To Spot Arguments For Delaying Climate Action
Climate Denial Hasn't Gone Away – Here's How To Spot Arguments For Delaying Climate Action
by Stuart Capstick
In new research, we have identified what we call 12 “discourses of delay”. These are ways of speaking and writing about…
Routine Gas Flaring Is Wasteful, Polluting And Undermeasured
Routine Gas Flaring Is Wasteful, Polluting And Undermeasured
by Gunnar W. Schade
If you’ve driven through an area where companies extract oil and gas from shale formations, you’ve probably seen flames…
Flight Shaming: How To Spread The Campaign That Made Swedes Give Up Flying For Good
Flight Shaming: How To Spread The Campaign That Made Swedes Give Up Flying For Good
by Avit K Bhowmik
Europe’s major airlines are likely to see their turnover drop by 50% in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,…
Will The Climate Warm As Much As Feared By Some?
Will The Climate Warm As Much As Feared By Some?
by Steven Sherwood et al
We know the climate changes as greenhouse gas concentrations rise, but the exact amount of expected warming remains…