© © Staffan Widstrand / WWF
Putting a lid on methane emissions—before it’s too late

Methane, or CH4, is a colorless, odorless, and highly flammable gas—and a significant contributor to climate change. In fact, this potent greenhouse gas is between 28 and 34 times more powerful than carbon dioxide (CO2) in its ability to warm the atmosphere. It is also responsible for at least a quarter of today’s global warming.

Several recent international reports have highlighted the need to crack down on the release of methane to limit global warming to 1.5°C. But as governments around the world finally begin to recognize this fact, the question remains: Will they move quickly enough to address methane’s potentially devastating effects?

Methane is released into the environment from natural processes as well as human activities. Thirty-five per cent of human-caused methane emissions are from fossil fuels, with agriculture and landfills being the two other main anthropogenic sources. As a primary component of natural gas, methane is used to produce heat and electricity around the world. But when natural gas is produced and transported, methane also leaks into the atmosphere. In the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) most recent report, it warned that methane levels have reached their highest point in 800,000 years and deep cuts in fossil gas production are needed to limit global warming.

© Ketill Berger / WWF

Diffusing the Arctic’s “ticking time bomb”

The single largest natural source of methane are wetlands, as they are breeding grounds for micro-organisms that produce methane. About a third of all methane in the air comes from wetlands—and as temperatures continue to rise, this number could increase. A recent European Commission Joint Research Centre (JRC) study found that natural methane emissions from the world’s wetlands could increase by up to 80 percent this century if no concrete actions are taken to reduce human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.

In the Arctic, methane is produced as organic matter decays within the thawing permafrost. It is trapped under or within the frozen seafloor of Arctic shallow seas and released when it thaws. As temperatures rise across the region, permafrost will continue to thaw at alarming rates.

As this happens, it could create a feedback loop—as permafrost thaws, more methane will be released into the atmosphere, contributing even further to global warming, which will in turn speed up permafrost thaw. There is no scientific consensus yet on how much methane would be released, or how fast it could be released from the permafrost, but it expected to thaw in the coming decades, as warming proceeds. What we do know, is that to stop this from happening, the world needs to take significant steps to limit warming to 1.5°C.

Countries pledging to slash methane emissions

The good news? Although methane has a higher heat-trapping potential than CO2, it breaks down in the atmosphere faster. This means that taking action now to drastically reduce methane emissions, in addition to slashing other greenhouse gases emissions, could have a significant impact on the climate, particularly in the near term—which is critical for the Arctic. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) found that cutting human-caused methane by 45 per cent this decade would avoid nearly 0.3°C of global warming by the 2040s.

Recent announcements could mark a crucial step toward reaching this goal. In September, the European Union and the United States announced a new joint agreement to cut global methane emissions by 30% by 2030. The Global Methane Pledge is the first of its kind—and it couldn’t have come at a more opportune time, as world leaders prepare for the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow at the end of October. The US and EU will use the climate talks to launch the pledge and call on other governments to commit to cutting methane emissions.

Since the pledge was announced, two dozen other countries have already confirmed they will sign it, including two other Arctic nations, Canada and Sweden. Canada also committed to developing a plan to reduce oil and gas methane emissions by at least 75 percent below 2012 levels by 2030. All eyes will be on the climate talks in Scotland to see if other Arctic nations—and countries around the world—will step up and commit to playing their part in slashing methane emissions, before it’s too late.

© WWF / Richard Stonehouse