Atmospheric scientists, Ilssa Ocko, explains how reducing methane could hit the brakes one climate change.

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The big idea 

In the time it will take you to read this post, more than 10,000 metric tonnes of climate-warming gases have been pumped into the atmosphere from human actions. Gulp. 

But what if we told you that we could hit the brakes on climate change? That’s exactly what atmospheric scientist Ilssa Ocko is suggesting.How do we do it? Reducing methane.

The science

99% of the pollution pumped into the atmosphere from human actions is carbon dioxide. The other 1%? It’s methane. But that 1% could cause more warming over the next ten years than all of that CO2 combined. Because methane is CO2’s evil, and more planet-warming, twin.

Why? It absorbs a lot more energy per unit mass for reasons relating to its molecular structure and its ability to form other greenhouse gases (read: bad). CO2 is important because it can linger in the atmosphere long after it is emitted. Reducing these emissions is key to protecting generations to come.

But climate change is already devastating many lives right now. We can’t just focus on the distant future. 

My work as a scientist aims to identify ways to slow down warming as fast as possible, so that we can lower the risks of worsening damage in the near future.

– Ilissa Ocko

The single fastest way to reduce warming now

This is where methane comes in. That 1% of methane may cause more warming than all the CO2 in the next several years, but it only lasts in the atmosphere for around a decade. Methane’s warming power is therefore not from the gradual buildup over time like CO2, but almost entirely from recent emissions. This means that every time we reduce methane, we can reduce a lot of warming right away!

In fact, cutting methane is the single fastest most effective opportunity to immediately slow down the rate of warming. 

This is because not only does methane act fast but because we can act fast. We have the tech available to cut methane emissions from human activities in half. And even better, many of these solutions pay for themselves. 

The unholy trinity 

Aside from cow burps, which you might know about already from our interview with animal scientist Ermias Kebreab, methane mostly comes from three main sources: energy production, managing waste and livestock. 

The first category – energy production – is the largest and cheapest opportunity we have to cut methane today. Most methane doesn’t come from burning fossil fuels, it comes from producing them. Because natural gas (which is mostly methane) can easily escape when companies extract oil, gas and coal or when transporting gas through pipelines.

In a nutshell, it’s a case of dodgy greenhouse gas plumbing. For example, oil fields in West Texas are wasting enough gas right now to heat more than two million homes.

The scale of these gas leaks can completely offset any of the short-term climate benefits of using gas instead of coal.

The upside? We now have the tech to cut the majority of these emissions around half – and for no net cost. Because the gas that is saved can be sold.

If it’s all about plumbing then fixing the methane problem is as simple as tightening a valve, replacing a gasket or tuning an engine.

If it’s that easy, why isn’t everyone doing it?

It’s not a money issue. It’s a data one.

Governments and the industry have been lacking information on where and how much methane is emitted in their systems. But our ability to detect these leaks has rapidly advanced in recent years. Everything from handheld instruments to sensors on aircrafts and drones. Plus, now there’s a growing universe of satellites designed to locate and measure methane from space.

One of those satellites is MethaneSAT which Ilissa and her team have been working on. Launching this year, it will be able to detect and quantify methane emissions across the globe with unprecedented precision. 

If we can find it, we can fix it. It’s not rocket science, it’s plumbing.

– Ilissa Ocko
Data from MethaneSAT will help measure methane pollution from oil and gas facilities worldwide with both broad scope and exacting precision. Photo: Environmental Defense Fund

Source 2: Waste management

We can also reduce a lot of emissions from the second category, waste management, where methane is produced as bacteria decompose, garbage in landfills and sludge in wastewater.

Some of the largest landfills receive enough trash per day to fill more than 10 Olympic-sized swimming pools before it is compacted. But we can suck up the methane from landfills by using tubes with vacuums and then use it to generate electricity, because methane is an energy-packed fuel. We can also reduce emissions by sending some trash, like food waste, away from landfills and instead to composting centres that are designed to prevent the release of methane. 

Source 3: Livestock

The third category, agriculture, emits the most and remains the hardest to address.

Some farm animals, like the billion-plus cattle worldwide, belch methane that was produced when digesting plants like grass. Reducing these emissions is possible with higher-quality feed. And there are scientists developing and testing new technologies, like feed supplements, that can suppress methane production in a cow’s gut by at least 30% with no negative effects on productivity or quality.

Livestock emissions – from manure and gastroenteric releases – account for roughly 32 per cent of human-caused methane emissions. Photo: Unsplash.

Livestock manure can also produce methane when concentrated, but we can cover manure lagoons and then pump manure into digesters that can capture the methane, which can then be used for heat and electricity. Another methane source is rice production. This one crop is a staple for half the world’s population, but the plants grow in flooded fields that create ideal conditions for microbes to form methane. We can slash emissions from methane by improving how we manage the required water, which can be as simple as maintaining a shallow level of water in the rice fields.

Seeing results in our lifetimes 

Ilissa and her team have found that we could slow down the rate of warming by as much as 30% before 2050. This would help communities and ecosystems adapt to a changing climate and hit the brakes on worsening extreme events, like wildfires in the Americas and Australia, and flooding in Europe and Asia. It would also help clean up our air, saving lives and crops, because methane contributes to ozone pollution. And because some of the people most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change are on the front lines of methane emissions. These solutions can also help reduce the inequity of climate change, for example, by job creation. 

Implementing all of these solutions will take work. But people have already started to act. Many governments, oil and gas CEOs, landfill operators and farmers are advancing measures to reduce methane. But we need more. We need standalone methane targets. Because if we succeed in a rapid, full-scale effort to cut methane, we have a chance to actually experience the benefits fast, in our lifetimes. 

– Ilissa Ocko

This is the methane moment. Because cutting methane is the single fastest, most effective opportunity to reduce climate change.

Until next time – stay curious!

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