Greenhouse Gasses: Methane (CH4)

What’s the deal with methane? I heard about cow farts, but I thought that was just hot air.

enteric fermentation climate change

Fun fact: Cow farts are not a significant contributor to global warming and climate change. Actually, it is cow *burbs* (or “enteric fermentation”) that contain significant levels of methane.

We hear a lot about carbon dioxide and how it impacts climate change, but there is more. Methane may seem less innocuous with its shorter lifespan (12 years to carbon dioxide’s 1000s of years) and lower overall concentration (measured in parts per billion, rather than parts per million) but don’t be fooled: methane is much more efficient at trapping heat. From the EPA: “Pound for pound, the comparative impact of [methane] is more than 25 times greater than [carbon dioxide]”. In other words, methane can generate 80 times more warming.

The last 40 years methane levels have increased from 1620 to 1870ppb (it was between 300-800ppb in the pre-industrial era). After a brief plateau from 2000-2007, these levels began increasing unexpectedly. A new study in 2019 found US production of shale gas from fracking “has contributed 33 % of the global increase in all methane emissions in recent years”.

Methane doesn’t have an evil twin, like carbon dioxide’s ocean acidification, but it does have what we might call a gassy second cousin. As global temperatures rise, methane emissions from natural methane sources (such as lake sediment and wetlands, and melting arctic permafrost) are expected to increase. We have no direct control over these emissions, other than to stop further warming.

The silver lining in this methane cloud lies in methane’s higher warming potential and the relatively relatively easy fix. Ever increasing methane emissions from anthropogenic (humans) activities (agriculture, landfills, waste, oil and gas supply chain, fracking, destruction of mangrove forests, converting peat bogs into agricultural land) can be seen as “a foot on the accelerator for climate change“. Curbing those emissions will, in theory, slow down the current rates of warming we are seeing, giving us most time to work on carbon dioxide emissions and sequestration.

At a time when we really need to curb methane emissions, the Trump administration has recently pushed to relax regulations on methane emissions. Outcry came from not only from politicians and environmental groups, but also from some of the largest oil companies themselves.

there is Hope

We have a very good idea of the natural and anthropogenic sources of methane. As with most causes of climate change, there are already policies and technologies available or in development to help curb and possibly drawdown methane levels in the atmosphere.

MOST IMPORTANTLY: Princeton researchers have already identified methane “super emitting” wells in the North Sea and Marcellus Shale basin in the Eastern US. Tracking, identifying and fixing these “super emitters” could buy us the extra time we need.

Ecosystem restoration. Scotland , Estonia, and Canada have all taken steps towards preserving their peatland. In Senegal, 152 million mangrove trees have been planted since 2009. Mangroves sequester carbon dioxide in the leaves and methane in the soil. They also filter salt from the water for the nearby rice fields and provide clams for local diets.

Fix the burps. There are methods to breed cows to have lower enteric fermentation or to give cows seaweed as feed.

Methane sequestration. Capturing methane from the air can be done, though it is more expensive and trickier than with carbon dioxide. However, there is a silver lining of this methane cloud.


Individuals can impact methane emissions through small acts. But we change will only come through better oversight and control. We need to be more involved if we want to save the planet.

VOTE!  Register to vote here for reminders. Do you have a voting plan? If you care about the environment, you *need* to vote. Encourage other environmentally conscious folks to vote in the upcoming elections which will be so important to the future of the planet. 
GET INVOLVED!  If we want to influence our government and leaders, we need more concerned folks getting involved. There are so many organizations: Sunrise Movement, Sierra Club, National Resource Defense Council, Elders for Climate Justice, Earth Guardians,  Americans Against Fracking, Food & Water Watch and more. 
Help protect coastal ecosystems. Seatrees uses money from purchased carbon offsets and plain old donations to restore and protect coastal ecosystems. Use them to offset your annual carbon usage, for a flight, etc. 
Reducing your use of methane source things. Eat less beef (fewer cows means less methane laden burps). Use potting soil that doesn't contain peat moss, which is harvested from our precious carbon storing peat bogs. But really, you need to vote!
Ask your local landfill to get involved in the EPAs LMOP program. The Landfill Methane Outreach Program (LMOP) is a federal initiative that "encourages the recovery and beneficial use of biogas generated from organic municipal solid waste".