The World Can’t Afford to Shrug Off the Methane Threat

Jul 22nd, 2020 | By | Category: Climate Change

By Suzanne York.

[Image from public domain images website, ]

[Image from public domain images website, ]

This past June saw an unprecedented heat wave in the Arctic, and in Siberia in particular, driven by climate change.  That alone should spur people to take real action on curbing the severe effects of our changing climate.  But COVID-19 is distracting us and turning our lives upside down, and worse.  Even if it weren’t, most people soon would forget about 100 degrees in the Arctic and turn their focus to the next shocking news story.

But even with this coronavirus grabbing our attention, we need to heed this warning in the extreme north.  Because it’s not just the temperature we should be concerned about; it’s the melting permafrost.  Once that begins to melt, it releases methane gases.

‘More potent than CO2’

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas and the second biggest contributor to human-caused global warming after carbon dioxide (CO2). It is 84 times more potent than CO2 and initially far more devastating to the climate because of how effectively it absorbs heat.

A new finding by an international team of scientists has found that global emissions of methane have hit the highest levels on record, nearly 600 million tons. The effects of melting permafrost is not yet a factor in this increase; this spike in methane is being driven by fossil fuels and agriculture.

Interestingly, three regions – Africa and the Middle East, China, and South Asia and Oceania – saw the largest increase in methane emissions.   A big increase in coal use caused methane emissions to jump in China, while population growth and rising incomes have led to more emissions in other regions.

Rob Jackson, an earth scientist at Stanford University who heads the Global Carbon Project, told the New York Times that “There’s a hint that we might be able to reach peak carbon dioxide emissions very soon. But we don’t appear to be even close to peak methane,” said, which conducted the research. “It isn’t going down in agriculture, it isn’t going down with fossil fuel use.”


[Methane budget image - Methane emissions by source. [Credit: Global Carbon Project of Future Earth]]

Methane budget image – Methane emissions by source. [Credit: Global Carbon Project of Future Earth]


Waking Up 8 Billion of Us

There are 7.8 billion people on the planet, and despite some reports to the contrary, for the time being, the world is still growing.  There could be almost 10 billion people by 2050, which isn’t all that far off.

It’s been said numerous times that this is our wake-up call.  In fact, it’s more than that – this is Nature practically hitting us over the head.

Curbing our fossil-fuel dependent ways is crucial.  To some extent the current crisis has lowered global emissions.  But this is likely temporary, and once the world gets “back to normal” – whatever that really means – it’s likely a return to high emission rates.

The UK, the EU and some US politicians want to see an embrace of green ideas in the post-COVID recovery.  Scaling back global reliance on fossil fuels by moving to clean energy, and promoting alternatives to industrial agriculture and meat intensive diets, are of course a big part of these efforts.  Other necessary policies and efforts include reducing wasteful consumption and slowing down our human numbers via supporting the rights of women and girls, in particular investing in education, sustainable livelihoods and reproductive health.

These are things we have control over and have the solutions to implement today.  Maybe the melting of the Arctic will frighten us into action. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet and the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in 20 years.  The rising Arctic temperatures in turn lead to extreme heat and droughts and rising sea levels.  Polar bears will not fare well and might be extinct by the end of this century.  Many other species will be impacted as well, and threats to indigenous communities are already being felt.


[photo credit: AWeith, Creative Commons]

Arctic iceberg [photo credit: AWeith, Creative Commons]

Our Backs Are Against the Wall

It should be obvious that it is for our own good to reduce emissions from methane and carbon dioxide. Cleaner air, better health, stable temperatures, and thriving species, to name a few benefits.

Our window of time for ending business as usual and changing course is closing rapidly.   If there is some hope to be found, it is how global society has acted to change behavior (most of us) during the COVID-19 crisis and gone to the streets to shout that black lives matter. Coming together to support one another and the health of the planet shouldn’t be a difficult undertaking.  Unfortunately that’s probably going to be the case, until our backs are against the wall. But this has been a crazy year, and anything can happen, perhaps even positive change for the Earth and all her inhabitants.

Suzanne York is Director of Transition Earth.

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