Methane is the #2 driver of climate change. Get to know the Methane molecule, it’s ruining our world.

Key methane takeaways from the <<UN IPCC>> report on climate change that might affect your carbon accounting:

  1.  .5 degrees Celsius (~1 degree F) & counting (for context, every .00001 degree equates to chaotic changes in our weather and lifestyles, the damage is beyond what our world can sustain)
  2. Methane is an important driver of climate warming
  3. Methane levels in the atmosphere are increasing
  4. Increases in methane levels are driven mainly by fossil fuels and livestock
  5. Revisions in methane global warming potential (GWP) factors
  6. Reducing methane reduces the effects of climate change

Human influence has warmed the atmosphere, and industrial methane emissions are a top cause—more on the scientific evidence and trends from our Chief Science Officer, Dr. Anna Scott.

I read the 4,000 page UN IPCC report and teased out some of the most alarming and actionable pieces.

Released on August 7, 2021, this 3900+ page juggernaut brings together the world’s top experts on chemistry, ocean, and atmospheric sciences to synthesize what’s going on with our planet’s climate long-term. Rather than releasing new science, this report sums up the current findings of peer-reviewed research. Finally, the report summarizes all the content into one smaller, but technically powerful report called the “Policy Maker’s Summary.” It provides conclusions like, “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean, and land.”

While carbon dioxide is the star of the IPCC show, methane receives some notable and honorable mentions and is one of the most actionable items we can tackle right now.

Methane is an important driver of climate warming.
“Human influence on the climate system is now an established fact…Combined evidence from across the climate system strengthens this finding. It is unequivocal that the increase of CO2, methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O) in the atmosphere over the industrial era is the result of human activities and that human influence is the principal driver of many changes observed across the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere, and biosphere.”

Of the nearly 1o C (1.8 degrees F) of average observed warming globally, methane in the atmosphere itself has contributed nearly half a degree Celsius which is equal to nearly one degree Fahrenheit.


Methane levels in the atmosphere are increasing
“The global mean surface mixing ratio of methane has increased by 156% since 1750.” Increases have continued in recent years after a flattening out in the early 2000’s, and between 2011 and 2019, “The globally averaged surface mixing ratio of CH4 in 2019 was 1866.3 ± 3.3 ppb, which is 3.5% higher than  2011, while observed increases from various networks range from 3.3–3.9%”

Increases in methane levels are driven mainly by fossil fuels and livestock
Methane in the atmosphere can come both from human sources, like natural gas emissions, and natural sources, like wetlands. The new IPCC report finds that this “…growth since 2007 to be largely driven by emissions from the fossil fuels and agriculture (dominated by livestock) sectors.” To further confirm that these increases are caused by humans and not natural causes, the report investigated the natural chemistry cycles and found that these chemicals (for example, a highly reactive molecule called hydroxyl, containing an oxygen and hydrogen atom) are not the primary driver of increases in methane levels.

Revisions in the global warming potential factors
These numbers are helpful for the climate & ESG professionals tasked with carbon accounting for methane-intensive industries: they allow us to convert methane molecules into carbon dioxide equivalents at a given exchange rate. The exchange rate is calculated based on how each molecule affects the climate. This gets complicated because different chemicals stay in the atmosphere for various lengths of time, and thanks to each molecule’s unique atomic structure, each has a slightly different greenhouse effect.

The new IPCC report gives methane a Global Warming Potential over a 20 year period of 81.2 and 27.9 over a 100 year period.

High methane means high surface ozone.
A quick ozone primer–ozone is great up high, where it absorbs those harmful UV rays your dermatologist tells you about. That’s the ozone hole stuff you may remember from the 90s. Down lower in the atmosphere, ozone is not so good. It’s a highly reactive molecule that will grab onto anything it comes into contact with, including your highly sensitive lung tissue. Methane and several other organic gases form a rather complicated set of reactions that can increase ozone levels.

According to the IPCC report, this is precisely what is happening: “There is high confidence that tropospheric ozone has been increasing [since] 1750 [AD] in response to anthropogenic changes in ozone precursor emissions (nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, non-methane volatile organic compounds, and methane.” Additionally, future predictions show that air quality is not expected to improve until methane levels reduce: “High methane levels hamper the decline in global surface ozone at least until 2080.”  If you’ve gotten an Air Quality report from your favorite weather app lately, ozone plays a part in that. In this summer of heat, fires, torrential rains, and all around wild weather, over xx% of our population is reporting trouble breathing. This will only get worse. As people try to shelter inside their homes and offices to alleviate their breathing problems and escape the heat, we put a tremendous strain on our energy ecosystem. This isn’t a reality for your grandchildren, this is a reality for you. Right now. Next year will be worse. ESG platitudes are not enough. Action should be taken, reported, and rewarded. It’s a necessity that will become more apparent with every passing week. 

Methane reductions mean less warming.
Dire headlines may dominate the news cycle, but the report reaffirms that reducing emissions will reduce warming and the disastrous effects that come with it. Specifically, the report finds that “warming is lower in scenarios assuming air pollution controls combined with strong and sustained CH4 emission reductions”. This conclusion is rated as “high confidence”. The other good news is that these effects would improve air quality and could be seen in as soon as 20 years.

Global warming is here, human-caused, and gases like methane are a major contributor. Methane levels in the atmosphere are increasing, mostly driven by fossil fuels and livestock, but the good news is that if we rapidly reduce methane levels, we can start reducing the most severe impacts of climate change. We now have the technology to accurately measure and track methane emissions so they can be mitigated faster than ever before. There’s no time to waste, and no excuses.

About Project Canary

Project Canary is a SaaS-based data analytics company focused on accurate corporate climate ESG data for emission-intensive industrial companies. We are the leaders in holistic environmental assessments (air, water, land, and community). Project Canary scores responsible operations, delivering independent emission profiles via high-fidelity continuous monitoring technology to provide actionable environmental performance data. Our sensor portfolio includes high-fidelity spectroscopy-based methane detection and emissions quantification for the oil and gas sectors, plus Aeris Technologies’ laser-based gas analyzers covering other emissions, including ethane, nitrous oxide, formaldehyde, ethylene oxide, benzene, and more. Formed as a Public Benefit Corporation, Project Canary’s Denver-based team of scientists, engineers, and seasoned industry operators identify and quantify areas to reduce emissions.

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