Exploring the role of methane in the global warming scenario


By Peter Makwanya

A LOT has been said about methane as a key driver in the global warming matrix but its role as a dangerous greenhouse gas has never been highlighted. From human activity perspectives and the resultant gases produced, methane is second to carbon dioxide. While all living things need carbon for life, too much of it becomes dangerous to the environment, people and atmosphere.

To help understand and manage methane emissions, the knowledge of sectors that act as its sources require comprehensive explorations.

Knowing where methane comes from helps us to understand how methane can be managed.

These sources are agriculture, oil and gas, coal mining, solid waste management and wastewater management, including wetlands, permafrost’s and landfills.

Methane is a highly mitigatory, concern, a greenhouse gas that requires correct interventions to manage it.

It is also a product of coal mining, oil and gas fields around the globe, which is the world’s headache to date. Methane is a sticking gas, as it is capable of staying in the atmosphere for almost a decade as opposed to carbon dioxide.

In terms of its global warming impact, methane is second to carbon dioxide.

Furthermore, the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) of 2021, calls for strong, rapid and sustainable reductions in methane.

Its main challenge is that allowing methane concentration in the atmosphere would indirectly increase the amount of carbon dioxide (C02) into the atmosphere. When these gases are in the atmosphere, it will not be easy to deal with them. That is why it is encouraged to keep carbon locked underground as removal from the atmosphere is expensive.

As a source, agricultural activities are methane intensive as they account for about 40% to 50% of methane emissions on the global scale. While agriculture drives the livelihoods of communities, it should be known that keeping a lot of cows, sheep and planting rice in paddies and wetlands, contribute large quantities of methane into the atmosphere. When livestock digest, it breathes out methane alongside carbon dioxide (C02).

When these two greenhouse gases combine, they increase the warming potential of the atmosphere and eventually lead to climate change.

Ruminants (cattle, sheep and goats), account for about 70% of agricultural emissions, responsible for more carbon dioxide production. Biomass burning is also an agricultural practice which is a moderate source of emissions, driven by expansion of land for pastures, settlements and crops. This practice need to be regulated but as long as there is population explosion, people will need more land for their livelihood.

Livestock rearing is the mainstay of human survival, status and economic gains, hence the world is not ready to part with these most prized possessions and status symbols for many people.

Given that ploughing, planting, transporting produce to manufacturers and the processing aspect consume more fossil fuels and electricity, the world can gradually shift to renewable energy transition and practice climate smart agriculture, largely powered by solar energy.

Oil and gas industries are also other emission intensive practices, despite mechanical innovations and processes designed to regulate methane.

Coal mining is another methane filled practice accounting for about 10 to 15% methane. Not enough measures are taken around the globe to rehabilitate abandoned coal mines as they later became sources of methane, mining in these abandoned mines also accelerate methane releases. Although coal mining-driven methane releases are difficult to quantify, necessary safety procedures need to be observed.

Solid waste is another source of methane, originating from landfills and open dumpsites in many urban areas, especially in developing countries that lack expert recycling capacities. Managing solid waste has been a challenge for some time with garbage strewn all over and dumped on irregular basis or sometimes forgotten, and left to generate methane emissions.

Wastewater also emits methane from the breakdown of organic materials in wastewater streams dotted around major towns and cities where manufacturing companies and factories dump industrial effluent, chemicals and toxins in streams, rivers and other water bodies. In many developing countries, this is due to lack of modern sanitation infrastructure and technology to help manage methane emissions as municipalities cannot bear the costs that go with this practice.

In wastewater, there are bio-solid materials that accumulate over time and end up producing methane.

With the correct expertise and technology, the bio-solid matter can be collected and converted into fertilizers as a stop-gap measure.

The challenge of faced in interrogating methane issues are that methane is always discussed alongside carbon dioxide in the global warming matrix but its role and impact are somewhat embedded in and backgrounded by carbon dioxide. Worse still, in the policy and regulatory corridors, including the public domain, methane, water vapour and nitrous oxide as co-greenhouse gases are not well known and widely discussed.

These gases are the subject of too much generalisations, alarmism, imagined and assumed rather than contextualised. Since methane emissions are difficult to measure, companies and organisations should take bold steps to regulate and monitor activities that lead to methane production.

Above all, the public does not know the kind of emissions that pollute the air they breathe, intoxicate their water bodies, damage their environment and contribute long-term effects to their health and wellbeing. Responsible authorities do not bother to engage in public awareness and engagements to keep the society sufficiently and firmly in the know.

The media need to find ways on how best to communicate and report on methane emissions for the benefit of a wide cross-section of audiences that are climate specific information starved. Whenever possible, methane emissions should be reported separately from carbon dioxide not as carbon dioxide but purely methane.

Communities which engage in livestock rearing and fossil fuels mining, solid waste and wastewater management including wetland degradation, among others, need sustainable awareness engagements. These co-benefits would help them to make lifelong informed decisions for a sustainable planet. What this all means is that companies, businesses and global multinationals and individuals need to change their lifestyles and monitor their carbon footprints and avoid carbon sins.

  • Peter Makwanya is a climate change communicator. He writes here in his personal capacity and can be contacted at: petrovmoyt@gmail.com