With current concentrations, methane gives us more greenhouse effect than CO2
This morning I met my neighbour Heinz. I had just gotten some nice crisp rolls from the bakery and pedaled leisurely into the driveway.
Heinz was in his blue overall, tinkering with a kettle and a plunger next to his Cherokee jeep, trying to fix the dent from last week. He beamed and waved the plunger: “With boiling water and this thingie, I can get the dent out! I found it on YouTube. I’m sure it works, and then will save me 200 euros.”
I was also bursting to talk to someone. The methane riddle had gotten to me! I had been at my computer Friday night and all Saturday. Heinz, good-natured as he was, was just what I needed: “Looks like a good solution to your puzzle. I have a puzzle too. Can you help me with it? – Your son-in-law to be works in the investment management of our pension fund, doesn’t he?”
“He does. Have they doctored the accounts?” he laughed.
I was too enthralled in the methane riddle to join his fun. “They may be using our money to buy their way into the stupidest investment of the future. Big pipelines, LNG terminals. There’s a lot of construction going on now, paid for by -also -our pension fund.”
“So it’s your pension you’re worried about,” he shook his head. “Well, I trust them. I do have first-hand information from Oliver. But really, they’re doing a good job. They’re managing all the risks.
I put the bicycle stand down and went over to him. “Check this out: Hannah said I really need to throw out my gas stove. So I spent all day yesterday researching this natural gas. Because all the magazines say that natural gas is going to be so much better for the climate. Did you read those stories?”
“Hannah is just a scaredy-cat”, joked Heinz. “Don’t take it all so seriously.” He grabbed a cloth and began to polish just around the dent.
“You know what. Natural gas seems not to be the solution. Actually it’s the contrary. Someone overlooked some devilish details, obviously.”
I noticed he was polishing very slowly. Was he hesitating? “Soo?”
“Natural Gas consists completely of methane. That is over a hundred times worse greenhouse gas than CO2!”
“Relatively speaking, yes. But by accident” – there he was polishing briskly again – “Emma made me watch this documentary, I now know that it is a rather small component of the atmosphere. No, Bob, the main culprit is Carbon Dioxide. And that is why your Hannah is CO2 tax activist and demonstrating again coal plants and what else she is doing. QED, mate!”
“I discovered a tragic error in their calculations. When calculating effects over a century, they compared the retention of heat of a ton of each gas. Methane retains a lot of heat, but is gone after 12 years. Decayed. Decomposed. CO2 retains only a little, but cannot decay into anything else, so it retains heat the whole time. However, over a 100 years, and taking a ton of each, Earth will have retained 34 times more heat with methane.”
“But if it decays so nicely” Heinze flitted his cloth around, “what’s your problem?”
“The methane levels are going up all the time! Not down. So the decay is not keeping up with where ever it comes from. And that is why the climate damage must not be diluted over 100 years.. So 34 times is rather devilish. After all, what is currently in the air causes not 34 times, but 120 times more heat than carbon dioxide.”
Heinz whistled at this. “Not so nice. But you said it will go down very soon. Then your 120 times is no longer correct”, he insisted.
“I wish it would. The concentrations they measure everywhere are going up since 2007.”
“Mmm, where can this come from? Methane come from cow burbs. Or rice paddies. Did they increase so much?”
“Don’t know. But now the cat is out of the bag, because broken research shafts, leaks in pipelines and fracking all pass gas too. Natural gas drilling went up. And apparently somebody underestimated this. In the USA the fracking boom might explain a lot here. Anyway, up it goes.”
“Well, natural gas is what we use over here to have a comfortably warm home.” He turned round and switched on his water heater.
“And I ran the math yesterday again: with current concentrations, methane gives us more greenhouse effect than CO2. So it is now climate threat number one! And natural gas use is aiding it!”
“I just hope you did not miscalculate.”
“Don’t think so. The IPCC report already said so years ago. It took time to reach the public. Nevertheless, the course we set in Europe is for natural gas. I want to know whether our pension fund invests in this. In LNG-Terminals or pipelines.”
“A pension fund cannot stop a pipeline!” Heinze said, shaking his head.
“At the very least, they should not encourage it,” I said emphatically. “Its the other way around: Our pension fund will have problems here. Gas will be phased out. That is logical: with the climate getting worse, a great danger like methane will soon be banished. Stopping natural gas is a very fast way to gain headway into this problem. So these projects will be shut down before the infrastructure is paid off. So investors will lose, including our pension fund. And we will get the crappy end of the stick, or of the pipeline in this case.” I left him with “Renewables will become more competitive anyway” to his dent fixing.
He was frowning, but I was not sure I had convinced him.
But I trusted Heinz’ party talent, he uses any excuse to throw a party. As soon as his dent would be fixed, the party would follow, for family and friends. There I could untangle my riddle further with people from the finance business, perhaps even with his son in law to be, while polishing off a few good chops.
What did I find out about methane, and how?
My daughter Hannah wanted me to throw out my gas stove. She had claimed:
1. Methane was more dangerous than previously thought because it was miscalculated.
2. The amount of methane in the atmosphere has suddenly risen sharply since 2007.
3. There have been an incredible number of leaks, accidents, sloppiness in natural gas production and fracking.
Fortunately, I got my friend Hans on the phone. Hans is a scientist, he had time and patience and helped.
1. Was Methane miscalcultated? How dangerous is it really?
I immediately found a vast number of tables with greenhouse gases on the net. Hans recommended the tables in the appendix of chapter 8 of the current, 5th report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (1). An almost unbelievable amount of gases was listed there. Their lifetime ranged from a few days to several millennia. In order to be able to somehow compare the harmfulness of these gases to the climate, a certain duration of effect – usually 100 years – was set and compared with the effect of carbon dioxide. Why 100 years?
The reason was given in another study (2): A shorter time span would undervalue long-lived greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, the most dangerous in the long term. The long 100-year span, in turn, valued short-lived gases too low. The more short-lived, the lower, like methane, which had an effect in the atmosphere for only 12 years. With the 100-year span, it is only considered 28 to 34 times as harmful as the reference gas carbon dioxide.
So it would depend on what you wanted. In order to assess the sense of short-term political measures, a short span or no span at all is appropriate. Methane, for example, which is now in the air, would have to be assessed as 120 times more harmful than carbon dioxide.
Methane is constantly decaying, but is constantly being replaced by new methane, respectively at the moment even more is being added. Therefore the amount of methane remains the same respectively increases. I concluded from this: If this methane contamination was rapidly reduced, the heating effect would also rapidly decrease. A great relief in the climate crisis!
I quickly wrote this down on an envelope. I took the current quantities from the measurements of the Maona Loa weather station in Hawaii (3, 3i), the historical data were provided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (4). First of all I wanted to know how much CO2 and how much methane had increased since the industrial revolution. Then I wanted to compare the effect of this excess:
Climate impact of carbon dioxide surplus = 135.0
Climate impact of methane surplus = 140.4
Methane had an even stronger effect today than CO2, the climate gas everyone thought was the main culprit!
Could that be true? I called Hans again. He led me to this graph from the 5th report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It compared the climate damage for three different time spans. And lo and behold: there, too, in the 10-year span methane was ranked number one in the Global Warming Potential (GWP):
The climatic hazard of methane has therefore long been systematically underestimated.
But that has changed. In 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) first considered shorter time periods in its 5th report (AR5), as shown in the graph. Before that, Robert Howarth from Cornell University had already addressed the question of which representation of the actual climate damage caused by methane was appropriate.
And why, after a dozen years at a high level, it suddenly started to increase again from 2007 onward.
As a layman, I shook my head in annoyance at this point. It had certainly made sense to agree on a standard to compare the harmfulness of the many greenhouse gases when the problem began to be taken seriously in the late 1970s. That was 40 years ago. Enough time to act. The essentials were now known. But no action was taken. Only the scientific community continued to research meticulously (7), as if there was still enough time. It was then running out. In order to be able to act quickly and effectively now, the most threatening gases could have been assessed pragmatically and individually. Apart from carbon dioxide, there is only methane and nitrous oxide (N20), then there are others (8). For these gases, but above all methane, tailor-made measures could be taken. Instead, the scientists struggled with this Global Warming Potential (GWP), which put it all together and then only came to the conclusion that: to cancel out the effect of a ton of methane, 34 tons of “carbon dioxide equivalents” would have to be neutralized.
And that was even wrong. It had put decision makers all over the world on the wrong track. Methane? Not as bad, and about as immutable as a cow’s burp. Governments were betting on natural gas. Nord Stream in Europe, Fracking in America.
That’s how it got all the worse.
2. Why did methane suddenly rise since 2007?
The amount of methane in the atmosphere had gradually increased until the 1990s. This was explained by changes in agriculture, which fed more and more people, and by more meat. There was more wet rice cultivation, in which rotting in the absence of air released methane, and more cattle, in whose stomachs it was produced (9). Environmental organizations demonstrated against meatballs at McDonald. Methane stagnated at high levels for a dozen years.
But from 2007 onward, the amount started to rise again, and at the fastest rate since the 1980s. What had happened?
Scientists puzzled. Then the composition of the carbon isotopes in atmospheric methane began to change. The proportion of the isotope 13C decreased measurably from 2009. Why? It was Robert Howarth who put one and one together: a) the increase in natural gas production worldwide, especially the fracking boom in the USA since 2006, and b) the increase in methane. The special isotopic composition of shale gas, obtained by fracking, could also explain the decrease of the isotope 13C in methane (10, 10i). More and more scientists now agree with this thesis (11, 11i, 11ii).
In the meantime damage has occurred. The 1.5 to 2 degree target of the Paris Climate Convention was already considered very ambitious in scientific circles back in 2015. But it was feasible, and there were already so-called emission scenarios for this. These were, to put it crudely, catalogues of individual targets which taken together kept earth overheating within limits. For example, the emission scenario RCP 2.6. One of these individual targets concerns methane pollution. It should have decreased significantly every year from 2010 onward. Instead, it rose at an accelerated rate to 1875 parts per trillion (ppt). However, it should already be 200 ppt below this level (12).
The international community has decided to limit overheating of the earth. How is this to be achieved without hard cuts in methane? And that means: hard cuts in natural gas production.
3. Drilling accidents, super-emitters, pipeline leaks?
What does it look like when the natural gas wells blow methane into the atmosphere? That’s what I wanted to know, because Hannah had claimed that there are incredibly many leaks, accidents and sloppiness in natural gas and fracking.
I didn’t have to look far. There have been repeated drilling accidents in which methane has been emitted. But unlike oil, the consequences were not as spectacular unless it blew up. So the oil and gas companies responsible sometimes simply did – nothing. As a result, methane may still be seeping out of a hole in the bottom of the North Sea off the coast of Scotland – since 1990. It is estimated that a quarter of all methane that leaks out of the North Sea oil and gas fields each year is released from this hole alone. (13)
By the way, the cover picture of this article shows the “Gate of hell”, the Darvaza gas crater in the desert of Turkmenistan. In 1971, a natural gas drilling went wrong there. The ground collapsed and methane flowed out of the crater. At least the government then had the crater ignited for safety reasons. It has been burning ever since. Today it is a tourist attraction. (14)
On 23 October 2015, employees of a gas supplier noticed that gas was escaping from an old well. For at least three and a half months methane with admixtures blew out of the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility, the second largest gas storage facility in the USA, until it was sealed. The reason: an ancient pipe in a forgotten borehole had rusted through. Afterwards our atmosphere contained about 100,000 tons of methane more. (15)
In February 2018, there was an inconspicuous accident at a natural gas drilling site in Ohio. Under high pressure, gas whistled into the air, which is impressively shown in a film taken from a helicopter. In just under three weeks, 60,000 tons of methane escaped, as was subsequently estimated. The extent only became known because at that time there was a new satellite that could document methane emissions. The satellite then discovered other super-emitters around the globe, some of which were not even known. (16, 16i)
In the USA, a total of 2.3% of the natural gas produced was apparently lost, 13 million tonnes per year, well over twice as much as the EPA had assumed. (17)
But perhaps the largest methane leaks were also the most unspectacular, such as a dilapidated pipeline network. It was difficult to measure this. I did not find data for other major producing regions, such as Russia.
In Germany, CO2 emissions respectively CO2 equivalents were given a price. I now know that escaping methane will certainly be given a price far too low in relation to its harmfulness to the climate. But obviously it will not be captured in the first place! As one member of the Bundestag wrote in response to a question: “The new Fuel Emission Trading Act (BEHG) is designed to address the marketing of fuels and combustibles. This means that gas suppliers or oil traders will have to buy a pollution right for every tonne of CO2 emitted by the products they sell… The methane slip is therefore not covered, since methane is not placed on the market.” (18)
Is Germany an isolated case?
Conclusion: The cheapest and quickest solution would probably be to stop natural gas production altogether
Natural gas production is, I had to conclude, the main cause of the high methane concentration and the sharp increase since 2007. However, it could also become the main part of the solution. The cheapest and most effective way, I now think, was to quickly patch up the holes in production facilities, pipelines, etc., wherever possible.
Unfortunately, the US was working against this, and international enforcement against other countries with high production rates, such as Russia, hence still depended heavily on gas revenues, was politically at least delicate. Nevertheless, one had to try.
But I also had to understand: methane-free natural gas production would not be possible. It would all have to stop, soon.
Bad news for my gas stove. But wait: what about the investments that are to flow into pipelines and LNG terminals? And who is giving the money? Is this also bad news for my pension fund?
(1) Myhre, G., D. Shindell, F.-M. Bréon, W. Collins, J. Fuglestvedt, J. Huang, D. Koch, J.-F. Lamarque, D. Lee, B. Mendoza, T. Nakajima, A. Robock, G. Stephens, T. Takemura and H. Zhang (2013) Anthropogenic and Natural Radiative Forcing. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA. Table on page 731. https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/WG1AR5_Chapter08_FINAL.pdf
(2) Paul Balcombe, Jamie F. Speirs, Nigel P. Brandon, Adam D. Hawkes (2018) Methane emissions: choosing the right climate metric and time horizon, in: Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlelanding/2018/em/c8em00414e#!divAbstract
(3) zu CO2: https://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/weekly.html, (3i) zu Methan: https://esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends_ch4/
(4) historical methane concentration: https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/03/TAR-04.pdf The data were obtained from ice cores, depending on the investigation, one can also find slightly different data on the net.
(5) Methane is usually expressed in parts per billion, ppb. I converted it to “parts per million”, ppm, the usual unit for the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
(6) Current global greenhouse gas emissions, as estimated by the IPCC AR5, weighted for three different global warming potentials and expressed as carbon dioxide equivalents. At the 10‐year time frame, global methane emissions expressed as carbon dioxide equivalents actually exceed the carbon dioxide emissions. From: Howarth (2014) A bridge to nowhere: methane emissions and the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ese3.35
Figure adapted from IPCC (2013) Climate change 2013: the physical science basis. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (6i) https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg1/
(7) The IPCC summarised the results just as meticulously, from the 1st report in 1990 to the 5th report in 2013, special reports on selected topics in between. They generally remained the same, tending to level out stronger statements – was that why reality often exceeded their predictions? One example was Arctic warming, which destabilised the jet stream, which now has a very noticeable impact on our weather.
(8) “Other” is a clutter of artificial gases, some of them highly harmful to the climate, including FCKW, against which action was already successfully taken with the 1989 Montreal Protocol. The gradual ban on HFC gases, another greenhouse gas class, was regulated in the Kigali Agreement in 2016.
(9) A brief outline of this from the University of Cambridge: Jacqueline Garget, What’s your beef? https://www.cam.ac.uk/stories/beef
(10) Important article about this: Howarth, R. W. (2019) Ideas and perspectives: is shale gas a major driver of recent increase in global atmospheric methane?, Biogeosciences, 16, 3033–3046, https://doi.org/10.5194/bg-16-3033-2019
(10i) In 2018, a NASA-led study by John Worden and team also suggested that the mystery could only be explained by gas from increased natural gas production: NASA-led study solves a methane puzzle https://climate.nasa.gov/news/2668/nasa-led-study-solves-a-methane-puzzle/
(11) Fossil-fuel production may be responsible for much more atmospheric methane than scientists previously thought, according to new research published in the journal Nature: Hmiel, B., Petrenko, V.V., Dyonisius, M.N. et al. (2020) Preindustrial 14CH4 indicates greater anthropogenic fossil CH4 emissions. in Nature 578, 409–412 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-1991-8
(11i) This article on Bloomberg explains the results: Humanity’s Methane Problem Could Be Way Bigger Than Scientists Thought https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-02-19/new-research-says-humans-may-have-an-even-bigger-methane-problem
(11ii) In the German Süddeutsche Zeitung the conclusions of the study in Nature and another study in Science are well summarized (in German): The burning of natural gas must stop as soon as possible: https://www.sueddeutsche.de/wissen/methan-klima-emissionen-1.4806904
(12) The base value is a concentration of 1745 ppb. By 2050 it must fall to 1452 ppb and then further, a total fall of 500 ppb in this century. For this, the concentration would have had to decrease by >6 ppb per year. In fact, it rose to 1875 ppb (see above on my envelope). What our world does not achieve in terms of methane reduction, it would have to compensate elsewhere. Or it accelerates efforts on methane, e.g. by phasing out natural gas. A methane reduction is technically a very rewardingSmeasure. Read about it in this excellent scientific publication, which is peppered with references like a British frigate with cannons in a Hornblower novel:
E. G. Nisbet, M. R. Manning, E. J. Dlugokencky et al (2019) Very Strong Atmospheric Methane Growth in the 4 Years 2014–2017: Implications for the Paris Agreement https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB006009
(13) Natural Gas Leak in the North sea (German): https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erdgas
(14) Gate of Hell, Turkmenistan: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darvaza_gas_crater
(15) Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility leak: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aliso_Canyon_gas_leak
(16) https://arstechnica.com/science/2019/12/ohio-gas-well-accident-last-year-released-surprising-amount-of-methane/ Other super-emitters, some of them larger, were discovered in Texas and Turkmenistan, source: New York Times Dec. 16th, 2019: A Methane Leak https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/16/climate/methane-leak-satellite.html?action=click&module=MoreIn&pgtype=Article®ion=Footer&action=click&module=MoreInSection&pgtype=Article®ion=Footer&contentCollection=Science
(17) Ramón A. Alvarez, Daniel Zavala-Araiza, David R. Lyon (2018) Assessment of methane emissions from the U.S. oil and gas supply chain. In Science, 361, 186–188. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/361/6398/186.full
(18) Answer to a question on Abgeordneten-Watch (in German) https://www.abgeordnetenwatch.de/profile/matthias-heider/fragen-antworten/319883