The invisible, odorless gas seeps into the atmosphere primarily from oil and gas operations and often goes unnoticed. Methane has about 80 times more heating power than carbon dioxide in the short term. With the planet rapidly approaching 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, scientists have warned that atmospheric methane must be brought down quickly.
Methane increased by 17 parts per billion in 2021, NOAA reported. The increase in 2020, just above 15 parts per billion, was the previous annual record.
The latest figures come just days after the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report outlining how the world should tackle the climate crisis. The panel reported that, as the world moves toward levels of global warming that will have irreversible impacts, economically viable solutions already exist, including reducing methane emissions, the fastest way to reduce heat.
The concentration of methane in the atmosphere is higher now than at any time in at least 800,000 years, according to the IPCC.
Methane, the main component of the natural gas we use to heat our homes and cook, can leak from oil and gas drilling and pipelines that transport those fossil fuels. It also comes from landfills and farming practices, and even flatulent cows.
Climate experts see methane as a quick win. If the world were to stop emitting carbon dioxide (CO2) tomorrow, global temperatures would not start to cool for many years due to the time the gas remains in the atmosphere. Methane, on the other hand, has a big warming impact for about nine years, said Xin Lan, a research scientist who works at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory.
“That means that if we reduce methane emissions now, we should be able to see levels in the atmosphere drop fairly quickly in a few years,” he said. “That’s slightly different than CO2, which stays in the atmosphere for thousands of years, so much more effort is required to achieve reduction.”
“And because CO2 has such a long shelf life, once it’s released into the atmosphere, the impact is silent and long-lasting,” Lan added.
NOAA also reported Thursday that carbon dioxide is now averaging 415 parts per million and continuing to rise. For context, when President Barack Obama was elected, atmospheric carbon dioxide was just over 385 parts per million. It was the 10th year in a row that CO2 increased by more than 2 parts per million, NOAA reported.
Robert Jackson, a professor of environmental sciences at Stanford University, told CNN that while reducing methane emissions is important, carbon dioxide cannot be ignored by world leaders.
“We need to address both,” Jackson told CNN. “Methane action alone won’t do the job, but it’s critical to slowing warming in the short term. Carbon dioxide remains the most important greenhouse gas in the long term.”
Jackson noted that because natural gas powers so much of our daily lives, cities and states would do well to prioritize electrifying new construction to avoid locking in natural gas use for decades more. He also said that there should be a cost for polluting the methane.
“We have even fewer mechanisms to price methane pollution than carbon dioxide in the United States,” Jackson said. “We need to expand carbon removal incentives to include methane removal.”
Rick Duke, the US Deputy Special Envoy for Climate, said the Biden administration wants to see more policies to regulate methane emissions from oil and gas, and that addressing methane is a top priority.