Why is methane bad for the environment and how can we combat it?

When it comes to air quality, often the focus is on how carbon dioxide (CO2) is bad for the environment and how to limit emissions from vehicles. However methane (CH4) is just as bad for the environment and is in some ways far worse than CO2. Let’s look at the ways methane is terrible for the climate and the environment as a whole, and how we can combat methane emissions.

What is methane?

In order to understand how methane is bad for the environment, we first need to understand exactly what methane is and how it is created.

Methane is a naturally occurring colourless and odourless gas. It is abundant in nature as a result of anaerobic bacterial decomposition of vegetable matter under water (wetlands areas are the main source of this ‘swamp gas’), while it also naturally occurs in volcanoes, in vents in the ocean floor and from termites, again as a result of digestion.

Production and combustion of coal and natural gases are the main sources of methane as a result of human activity (anthropogenic sources). Other human activities that cause methane include livestock farming (cows can release up to 500 litres of methane into the atmosphere each day), waste management and the burning of biomass.

Producing a lot of something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad but the reason methane is bad for the environment is because it is a greenhouse gas.

What is a greenhouse gas?

Greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere and warm the planet. When the sun shines upon the Earth, some of that energy escapes back to space while greenhouse gases trap the rest, creating what is known as the greenhouse effect. Without greenhouse gases, the temperature of the Earth would be almost -18°C so they do serve a purpose. The problem occurs when there is too much greenhouse gas in the atmosphere; Earth becomes warmer and climate change occurs as ice melts, the environment changes and seasonal weather is altered.

Greenhouse gases dissipate over time via different processes, depending on their different chemical properties. It is also these chemical properties which contribute to just how much influence a greenhouse gas has on climate change.

What is the effect of methane on global warming?

The influence greenhouse gases have on global warming can be broken up into three areas:

  • How abundant the gas is in the atmosphere (concentration is measured in parts per million/billion/trillion; a gas measured at 1ppm means there is one molecule of that gas for every million molecules of air);

  • How long the gas remains in the atmosphere;

  • How effective the gas is at trapping heat (measured as Global Warming Potential or GWP).

GWP is a measure of the total energy that 1 ton of a gas absorbs over a given period of time (usually 100 years) relative to the emissions of 1 ton of carbon dioxide.

As a pollutant, methane is short-lived, only having an atmospheric lifetime of around 12 years. Carbon dioxide, which is perhaps the most well-known and most written about greenhouse gas, can stay in the atmosphere for between 300 and 1,000 years. But this doesn’t tell the full story. Methane is much more efficient than carbon dioxide at trapping radiation. Per unit of mass, the impact of methane on climate change over 20 years is 86 times greater than CO2; over a 100-year period, it is 28 times greater. That’s the reason why it is so important to combat methane emissions.

Reducing methane can curb climate change

In 2019, methane emissions reached record levels in our atmosphere, with 2.5x more methane than there used to be in the pre-industrial era. Because its atmospheric lifetime is so short in relation to CO2, curbing methane emissions is perhaps the most effective way to curb climate change.

In a global assessment of methane by the UN Environment Programme and the Climate & Clean Air Coalition (CCAC), they note that methane from human activities could be reduced by 45% within the next ten years, and if managed, it would reduce global temperatures by 0.3°C by 2045, which would help to meet the Paris Agreement’s objective to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C.

How to reduce methane emissions

Methane is just one of the greenhouse gases that need to be brought under control in order to curb climate change and global warming. The report from the CCAC and UN Environment Programme note that methane emissions can be traced back to three key areas:

  • Fossil fuels;

  • Waste management;

  • Agriculture.

Reducing methane emissions in these areas is one way to reduce the effect of global warming with initiatives including relatively simple fixes such as locating and repairing methane leaks in pipes when they occur, reducing their release.

Eventually, biotechnologies like Pure Air Zone, have a significant impact on breaking down this substance.

We have harnessed a unique biophysical principle to be able to attract all harmful particles which would never respond to gravity or ventilation. Once the contaminants, including methane, are attracted to our reactor, a process called methane oxidation happens. This is a microbial metabolic process that is carried out by specific groups of bacteria. Thanks to natural bio.oxidation the contaminants and compounds are digested and transformed into water, carbon dioxide in a minimum quantity (as a result of cellular respiration), and if present, base elements.

Of course it isn’t just methane that is bad for the environment. Reducing all greenhouse gas emissions should be seen as a priority in the years to come. We deal with this topic in this Whitepaper. Download it for free.