For years, clean energy experts and environmental advocates have been sounding the alarm of runaway carbon dioxide emissions. The global community uses carbon dioxide, often referred to as simply carbon for short, as the basis for climate-related pledges, to measure how clean an energy source is, and in everything from scientific journals to frontpage headlines. While carbon emission reduction efforts are critical towards a future unhampered by climate change, Green Development LLC highlights that carbon is not the only critical greenhouse gas. More government, policy, and industry leaders are starting to recognize just how important methane is to monitor. The damaging impact of continued rampant methane emissions must not be overlooked.
Overview of Methane
Methane is a specific configuration of carbon and hydrogen particles, creating CH4 with four hydrogen atoms to each carbon. Whereas carbon dioxide is the major damaging emission coming from the burning of all sorts of fossil fuels, methane emissions come from a myriad of natural and manmade activities, both within and outside of energy systems.
On the global scale, the United Nations figures that human activities account for about 60% of all methane emissions, totaling hundreds of millions of metric tons annually. Naturally occurring processes account for the remaining 40% of methane emissions, mostly from wetlands (accounting for 30% of total global methane emissions, according to the U.S. Geological Survey) and partially from less significant factors like geological seepage, volcanic gases, arctic and permafrost melting, wildfires, ocean sediments, and termites.
Methane is a naturally occurring hydrocarbon gas mixture that makes up the largest portion of natural gas within the energy industry. When oil and gas companies extract fossil fuels from the Earth, a portion of the methane—roughly 2 to 4%— is released into the atmosphere as a part of that extraction process. It may not sound like much, but the impact on atmospheric warming is significant. Further, when methane moves, whether by pipeline or vehicle, any imperfections in that process lead to leakage of natural gas and thus methane emissions.
But the oil and gas industry is not the only source of manmade methane emissions. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 30% of U.S. methane emissions from human activities are produced by natural gas and petroleum systems. However, recent Greenland-based studies of pre-industrial-era crystalline ice indicate that the actual number could be much higher, and the contribution from natural sources much lower than the current EPA estimates. Other manmade sources include:
- 27% from livestock gases (e.g., cow burps).
- 17% from landfills.
- 9% from livestock manure management.
- 7% from coal mining.
- 9% from other smaller sources.
Risks and Challenges in Methane
So, what’s the big deal about methane, particularly if it only accounts for 10% of all U.S. greenhouse gases, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency? Shouldn’t carbon dioxide continue to be the main enemy the clean energy industry battles?
To understand the answer to that, Green Development LLC notes the key difference between carbon dioxide and methane as greenhouse gases: methane is much more potent. The danger of these emissions, whether carbon or methane, is that increased concentrations of them in the atmosphere lead to heat being more tightly trapped in the atmosphere (i.e., the greenhouse effect), resulting in global temperature increases and associated major climate shifts.
While methane is less prevalent as a gas in the atmosphere, the Environmental Defense Fund cites that methane particles have 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over their first 20 years in the atmosphere. Methane does dissipate more quickly after that time. Still, for a global community seeking to avoid catastrophic warming by midcentury, the direct impact of methane on delicate climate systems is greater and more harrowing.
Further, methane brings with it additional concerns. For example, workers behind a highway expansion project in Texas had to drain a nearby gas pipeline for safety reasons, which ended up releasing nearly 500 tons of methane (roughly the equivalent of 8,000 cars driving for a whole year, according to Bloomberg analysis). Meanwhile, increased concentrations of methane are directly responsible for environmental and health hazards that lead to reduced agricultural output and even increased respiratory deaths, according to the Climate & Clean Air Coalition.
Monitoring and Tracking Methane Emissions
For those looking to minimize these damaging impacts of methane emissions, the first step must be to measure and identify the source of methane emissions. Monitoring methane emissions allow for accountability of the offenders and learning about the effectiveness of various solutions.
Traditionally, observers track methane with ground-based measurement tools. For example, the handbook ‘Improving Characterization of Anthropogenic Methane Emissions in the United States’ highlights typical methods like sensors and for point-source measurements (e.g., in the instance of leaks), enclosure techniques that allow for measurement within a small tracked area (e.g., a limited area where a certain amount of livestock is kept), or even more advanced tower-based vertical measurements of gas concentrations that allow for tracking over a larger (but still limited) area.
But to tackle the truly global nature of methane emissions, coming in greater quantities and from numerous locations, tracking and detecting methane emissions has taken to the skies. First, planes and drones measure methane emissions from 900 meters up. More recently, even satellites in space are tracking methane emissions on a global scale from low orbit, according to the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative.
The new information provided by these advanced tracking tools has been eye-opening to the global climate community, with previously undisclosed ‘super emitters’ of methane identified and held accountable. According to a survey of newfound research from the Environmental Defense Fund, these modern monitoring tools identified a total of 13 million metric tons of methane emissions, 60% higher than previously accepted estimates. The culprits were unclaimed oil and gas field leaks, worsening sewage and manure management, and more.
Green Development LLC contends that the only way for real improvement is if global leaders lean into this accountability and utilize the latest measurement technologies as a means of doing so.
After identifying the problem and determining the severity, the global climate community must move to the key part of the process: taking action. The following seven actionable suggestions can help nations collectively move towards a cleaner future less impacted by methane emissions:
- Support farms and food companies that are actively reducing their methane thanks to modern advancements and findings (e.g., incorporating seaweed into the diets of livestock, which reduces the fermentation that leads to methane emissions).
- Where possible, reduce the consumption of farm-raised meat towards dietary alternatives that have less of a methane impact.
- Make the most of the food that is grown and cultivated by tapping into innovative and personal actions to reduce food waste.
- Continue to hold methane emitters accountable with continued methane monitoring, using the most advanced tools and encouraging the International Methane Emissions Observatory to collate and curate all available data on these emissions.
- Commit to meet the international pledge to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030 that was reached at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow in November 2021.
- Support R&D into the necessary technology that can further reduce methane emissions, such as the recent U.S. Department of Energy announcement of funding a dozen projects via the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) Reducing Emissions of Methane Every Day of the Year (REMEDY) program.
- Continue the full-speed-ahead approach towards a clean energy economy that can power society without spilling millions of tons of methane into the atmosphere.
About Green Development LLC
Green Development LLC is the leading developer of large-scale renewable energy projects in Rhode Island, specializing in wind, solar, and battery storage. The company delivers significant energy savings to municipalities, quasi-public entities, nonprofits, and other qualified entities through the virtual net metering program while providing long-term lease payments to landowners and farmers.
Since 2009, Green Development has been instrumental in transforming the energy mix in Rhode Island to clean, reliable energy. The company has developed more than 70 MW in solar and wind capacity, with plans to add 75 MW in 2021. Green Development is devoted to preserving farmland, reducing water and air pollution, increasing energy security, and creating local jobs. Current wind and solar sites reduce carbon emissions equivalent to using 8,557,790 gallons of gas each year.
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