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Methane & Climate Change

Methane is a greenhouse gas. In the short term, it is much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. But it degrades more quickly. It's complicated. Let's explore methane's relationship to climate change.

 

Right now the European Space Agency’s CAMS is as good as it gets for methane data, which is pretty good at the global scale, and can be seen in real time. Methane concentrations in the atmosphere are rising again, after leveling off for a bit. Over North America, there has been an acceleration of methane increases over the last decade, of about 30%. U.S. methane emissions are underestimated by 30 to 50 percent (Turner et al, 2015).

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Initially, the methane has 102 times the radiative forcing of CO2. Averaged over its first 2 decades, methane has about 84 times the radiative forcing. The graph below shows that it dissipates more quickly than CO2, which can hang around for hundreds of years. By year 67, the climate forcing of the two gases is about equal:

 
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Natural gas consists primarily of methane. If that natural gas is burned in a power plant, the electricity has only half the CO2 footprint of coal. If it escapes into the atmosphere unburned, it's much worse than coal.

Methane is at the heart of the U.S. natural gas fracking boom, at both the wellhead and the power plant.

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Methane leaks at every stage of the natural gas system, from fracking, to transmission, to storage, to distribution.