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Cut Methane Now or Face Climate Catastrophe, Scientists Warn

This story includes details about the impacts of climate change that may be difficult for some readers. If you are feeling overwhelmed by this crisis situation here is a list of resources on how to cope with fears and feelings about the scope and pace of the climate crisis.

Humanity must cut methane emissions or face climate catastrophe, scientists were expected to warn in this morning’s release of a landmark science report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Reducing runaway methane emissions from shale gas, oil extraction, and animal farming will be a cornerstone of any effort to get the climate crisis under control, The Guardian wrote in an exclusive report Friday that looked ahead to today’s news.

“One of the key action points for policy-makers is likely to be a warning that methane is playing an ever greater role in overheating the planet,” with warming potential more than 80 times higher than carbon dioxide, the paper reported.

“Cutting methane is the biggest opportunity to slow warming between now and 2040,” Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development and a lead IPCC reviewer, told Guardian reporter Fiona Harvey. “We need to face this emergency.”

Zaelke said aggressive methane controls are likely the only way to keep average global warming below a threshold of 1.5°C, “beyond which extreme weather will increase and ‘tipping points’ could be reached,” The Guardian writes.

“We need to see at COP 26 a recognition of this problem, that we need to do something on this,” Zaelke added.

The Guardian adds that methane cuts are needed to balance out the short-term climate impact of phasing out coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel. Perversely, the sulphur particles in coal emissions deflect some sunlight, helping to shield the Earth from even greater warming over the short term.

“That means the immediate effect of cutting coal use could be to increase warming, although protecting the Earth in the medium and long term,” The Guardian explains.

That means “defossilization will not lead to cooling until about 2050,” Zaelke said. “Sulphur falling out of the atmosphere will unmask warming that is already in the system.”

But “climate change is like a marathon—we need to stay in the race. Cutting carbon dioxide will not lead to cooling in the next 10 years, and beyond that our ability to tackle climate change will be so severely compromised that we will not be able to run on. Cutting methane gives us time.”

In Canada last week, the Pembina Institute called on federal and provincial governments to increase its 2030 target for methane reductions to at least 75% below 2012 levels, adding that the country “needs to get as close as possible to eliminating methane emissions by the end of this decade to help reach its net-zero goal.” A paper by senior analyst Jan Gorski points to a Canadian Energy Research Institute study that found the oil and gas sector can cut methane 80% at a cost of less than $25 per tonne of carbon dioxide-equivalent.

The Guardian says satellite data point to Russia as the country with some of the leakiest oil and gas wells on the planet. Paul Bledsoe, a Clinton-era White House climate adviser now working at the Washington, DC-based Progressive Policy Institute, said the EU should respond by measuring, then regulating methane emissions in its natural gas imports.

“Today more than 40% of EU gas is methane heavy gas from Russia, which is worse than coal for the climate,” he told The Guardian.

Last week, a team of geologists reported an increase in methane emissions from another source in Russia, after the 2020 heat wave sped up the thawing of rock formations in Arctic permafrost. That may be leading to methane releases “potentially in much higher amounts” than scientists have predicted in the past.

“The difference is that thawing wetlands releases ‘microbial’ methane from the decay of soil and organic matter,” the Washington Post explains, citing the new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Thawing limestone—or carbonate rock—releases hydrocarbons and gas hydrates from reservoirs both below and within the permafrost, making it ‘much more dangerous’ than past studies have suggested.”

The thawing took place last summer when surface temperatures in parts of Siberia ran 10.8°F/6.0°C above normal, the Post says. The team from the Institute of Geosciences at the University of Bonn “used satellite maps that measured intense methane concentrations over two ‘conspicuous elongated areas’ of limestone—stripes that were several miles wide and up to 375 miles long—in the Taymyr Peninsula and the area around northern Siberia.” With very little soil or vegetation covering the limestone, the rock formations cracked as they warmed, releasing the methane below.

Scientists outside the study team said they’ll want to keep an eye on the research.

“It’s intriguing. It’s not good news if it’s right,” Robert Max Holmes, a senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Center, told The Post.

“It will be important to continue to compare methane in future years to really pinpoint how much additional geologic methane is being emitted to the atmosphere as the permafrost thaws,” added Ted Schuur, professor of ecosystem ecology at Northern Arizona University. “We know the heat wave was real, but whether it triggered the methane release cannot be determined without additional years of methane data.”