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Cutting Methane Emissions Could Slow Climate Change By 15 Years

Methane release from a power plant

According to one of the world’s top climate modellers, we (as in Earthlings) could buy ourselves 15 years of climate change breathing space if we focused on limiting methane emissions.

Peter Cox of the University of Exeter, UK, spoke to more than 2,800 scientists at the Planet Under Pressure meeting in London, where issues regarding climate change are discussed and potential solutions are suggested. He believes the trick is to not only focus mainly on reducing carbon dioxide emissions, but also focus on cutting methane, the second most significant greenhouse gas.

“Methane is a more important control on global temperature than previously realized,” Cox said. “The gas’s influence is much greater than its direct effect on the atmosphere.” He also noted that cutting methane emissions may be one of the only ways to reduce global warming at this point.

Methane is released into the atmosphere in many ways, such as leaks in coal mines and gas pipelines, landfills, rice paddies, and livestock waste. He has measured how methane and carbon dioxide affect plant growth, and suggests action against methane could have twice the effect originally anticipated.

According to Cox, an atmosphere with more carbon dioxide and less methane would encourage land vegetation to absorb more CO2, which would then act as a fertilizer, allowing it to grow faster and continue to absorb more. It would also minimize the formation of tropospheric ozone, which is damaging to plants.

While none of this is groundbreaking info, Cox is the first to calculate the collective impact on all of this. He noted at the conference that a 40% reduction in methane emissions caused by humans would give us an additional 15 gigatons of CO2, turning into 15 extra years of breathing space (how generous) at the current CO2 emission rates. If we focus only on reducing CO2 emissions, his calculations suggest it will be “extremely unlikely” that we will stop global warming at 2 degrees celsius. Drastic action on methane would make it much more doable.

Aside from the fact that it boosts vegetation and reduces tropospheric ozone, it’s also cheaper to cut methane emissions and helps cut health risks, particularly asthma, from air pollution.

So how can we go about cutting methane emissions in our own lives? We could invest in some solar power (fossil fuel production is a pretty big contributor), eat less meat (cow farts are wicked), reduce our consumption and increase our recycling habits (methane emissions from landfills are also pretty wicked). We’ll most likely improve our health and give everyone else a little more breathing space, too.

via NewScientist
Image courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center: a methane release from a power plant in Connecticut.

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