Limiting leaks from fossil fuel facilities is “low-hanging fruit” for stabilizing atmospheric methane levels, which showed the largest increase on record last year and hit the highest level since scientists began collecting data 39 years ago.
That leaked methane is “a waste of pure energy,” said Dr. Xin Lan, an atmospheric scientist with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “It shouldn’t be there in the atmosphere.”
NOAA’s preliminary analysis, released last week, showed atmospheric methane averaging 1,895.7 parts per billion last year, a 162% increase from pre-industrial levels and an increase of 17 ppb over 2020. The agency also found carbon dioxide levels increasing at “historically high rates”, to 414.7 parts per million last year. It was the tenth year in a row when CO2 concentrations rose by more than 2 ppm, amounting to “the fastest sustained rate of increase in the 63 years since monitoring began.”
Methane is less abundant in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, but it has still become a focus point for climate scientists because of its potent short-term effects on global warming, the New York Times explains. Global concentrations have steadily increased over the past few decades, but the amount reported in 2021 broke the standing record from 2020 for the largest annual increase ever.
“Our data show that global emissions continue to move in the wrong direction at a rapid pace,” said NOAA Administrator Richard W. Spinrad. “Reducing methane emissions is an important tool we can use right now to lessen the impacts of climate change in the near term, and rapidly reduce the rate of warming.”
Various sources are responsible for methane emissions, like landfills, decomposing organic matter, and agriculture. Part of the cause for 2021’s record increase may also have been heavy rainfall from La Niña weather patterns, which increase methane production from microbes in tropical areas. Rising global temperatures also increase microbial activity.
But fossil fuels are a big, significant source, and “limiting leaks from fossil fuel facilities should be an easier way to stabilize methane levels than trying to manipulate rainfall in the tropics,” Lan said. “Fossil fuel methane emission reduction seems to be low-hanging fruit to us,” given that emitters could be using the gas as fuel and making money from it, rather than letting it leak into the atmosphere.