Understanding Methane

Understanding Methane

By Bella Natale @ GreenBlue
October 2, 2021

What is methane?

Methane (CH4) is a colorless, odorless gas that is a primary component of natural gas and classified as a greenhouse gas (GHG).[1] By definition, a greenhouse gas is any gas that absorbs infrared radiation, traps heat in the atmosphere, and contributes to the warming of the surface and lower atmosphere of a planet.[2]  Methane is the second-most prevalent GHG behind carbon dioxide (CO2).

Where does methane come from?

Methane is emitted by anthropogenic (human-influenced) sources and natural sources. Breaking down the natural sources, the majority of methane comes from wetlands (70%), as CH4 is produced when organic matter decomposes without oxygen, anaerobic decomposition.3 Other natural sources include the melting of arctic permafrost, oceans, and termites.[3] On the anthropogenic side, primary contributors include; the fossil fuel industry, livestock, landfills, agriculture, and rice paddies.3 To compare the two, natural sources emit 250 million metric tons while anthropogenic sources emit 28% more, 320 million metric tons.3

Why should we be worried about methane?

Since 1750, there has been a 250% increase in methane in the atmosphere due to increased human activity. Methane is considered a short-lived climate pollutant (SLCP) with an atmospheric lifetime of roughly 10 years, compared to 200 -1,000 years for CO2 .4 While CH4 may have a shorter lifespan than CO2, it is more potent, with a global warming potential (GWP) that is 30x higher than CO2 over a 100 year timeframe, and 86x more over a 20 year timeframe. SCLPs can have a stronger negative impact on climate in the short term.

Methane is a threat to both people and the planet. The risks of increased methane coincide with the risks of increased CO2 , which can be found in CH4’s guest blog post, What if rising temperatures became reality?. Risks range from human health to environmental issues, and are currently harming us directly and indirectly. To put it in perspective, cutting one million metric tons of methane would prevent approximately half a million annual premature deaths, help avoid 145,000 tons of crop losses, and provide societal benefits of $4,300 per metric ton of CH4.[4] Cutting methane emissions is the fastest opportunity we currently have to slow the rate of global warming.

What action is being taken in the U.S.?

Methane’s short atmospheric lifetime means taking action now can quickly reduce methane levels. The existence of readily available, low-cost measures, and methane’s short-lived atmospheric lifetime means significant climate and clean air benefits can be achieved by 2030.7

Under the Obama administration, a 2014 Climate Action Plan called for cutting methane emissions from cows in the US by 20% by 2020.4 California has now passed legislation to reduce methane emissions by 40% by 2030.4 “The United States is committed to driving down methane emissions both at home and globally—through measures like research and development, standards to control fossil and landfill methane, and incentives to address agricultural methane.”4 The IPCC noted that if the world is to achieve the 1.5 degrees celsius global temperature target, deep reductions in methane emissions must be achieved by 2030.8 As a response, Biden announced the Global Methane Pledge to significantly cut methane emissions by 2030.[5]  Highlights of this pledge include goals to; reduce methane leakage from pipelines and related facilities, implement stronger pollution standards for landfills, and advance the education of climate-smart agriculture practices.[6]

While these are all steps in the right direction, are these plans enough?  “Politicians and the public tend to worry about CO2 emissions and neglect the effects of cutting methane. But dealing with the gas would have a large effect rapidly and at a relatively low cost.”[7]

Ruminant animals and methane production.

Circling back to one of the major contributors of methane production, 30% of anthropogenic emissions come from enteric fermentation and the manure of ruminant animals. What does this mean? Methane is emitted during the digestion process in animals that graze and acquire nutrients from plant-based food (cattle, sheep, goats, etc.). During digestion, microbes decompose and ferment plant materials, such as sugars and starches, in their digestive tract and release methane through burping.[8]  Between 2 to 12% of a ruminant’s energy intake is typically lost through the enteric fermentation process, so animals have to eat more to make up for the energy loss. 6

Currently, there are 1.5 billion cattle in the world, and this number is only growing to keep up with the demand for beef and dairy. While an ideal situation for reducing the amount of methane from livestock would be to have people change their eating habits, that is not a realistic short-term solution. CH4 Global’s solution understands this reality and aims to tackle this problem in a unique way.

Here is how CH4 Global is addressing the problem.

We know methane mitigation matters and action is needed now. Here is the good news, “methane breaks down quickly and most is gone after a decade, meaning action can rapidly reduce the rate of global warming in the near-term.”4 Here is how CH4 Global is taking action. We know that enteric methane production is directly related is the type and quality of feed.6 Using the seaweed, Asparagopsis taxiformis and Asparagopsis armata, CH4 Global is on an urgent mission to create a sustainable feed additive to slash methane emissions from ruminant livestock.[9] This seaweed contains bromoform (CHBr3) which is an “active” ingredient in specialized structures called gland cells.  In the cow’s gut, bromoform works by disrupting the enzymes that produce methane during digestion. This disruption can mitigate up to 98% of the methane produced from enteric fermentation.9 This solution provides us with an actionable plan to help us meet the goals we need to achieve by 2030.

 Bella is a Marketing Associate at the environmental nonprofit, GreenBlue. Her work pertains to spreading the use of sustainable materials in society. She is passionate about mitigating the impact of climate change through educating others about social and environmental issues. She holds a B.S. in Marketing from Bentley University.


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