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Methane emissions jumped by record amount in 2021, NOAA says

Carbon dioxide emissions also rose more than 2 parts per million for the 10th consecutive year

Pump jacks operate while others stand idle in the Belridge oil field near McKittrick, Calif., on Nov. 3, 2021. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
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Global methane emissions soared by a record amount in 2021, eclipsing the record set the year before, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, demonstrating the huge challenge facing policymakers who have pledged to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Methane, the second biggest contributor to human-caused global warming after carbon dioxide, is emitted in part by oil and natural gas production, particularly shale gas drilling. But it’s also emitted by livestock farming and landfills, as well as wetlands whose waterlogged soils, rich in microbes, are ideal for naturally producing methane.

Since last year, about 100 countries have signed on to a Global Methane Pledge, which aims to cut emissions 30 percent by the end of the decade. Some major emitters, such as Russia and China, still have not.

“Our data show that global emissions continue to move in the wrong direction at a rapid pace,” Rick Spinrad, the NOAA administrator, said in a statement. “The evidence is consistent, alarming, and undeniable.”

Recently, climate experts and diplomats have put extra emphasis on controlling methane emissions because it is relatively easy to reduce the emissions by stopping methane escaping from oil and gas wells and leaking from pipelines. Major multinational oil and gas companies have emitted methane in the Permian Basin in Texas and New Mexico. And Russia ranks among the biggest emitters with aging pipelines stretching for roughly 2,500 miles from the remote Yamal Peninsula in Russia to consumers in Europe.

“Reducing methane emissions from fossil fuel is an important step, and a low-hanging fruit to reduce atmospheric methane levels,” said Xin “Lindsay” Lan, a research scientist at NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Given that atmospheric methane largely disappears after about nine years, “it can respond rather quickly” to efforts to reduce such emissions.

But she added that other factors were also driving emissions. Lan said that heavy rains from the La Nina weather pattern in tropical areas over the past two years might have flushed large quantities of methane from wetlands. Lan added that livestock farming and landfills were also “dominant drivers” behind the upturn in emissions that took place after 2006.

Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, said that methane concentrations in the atmosphere have continued to spike in recent years both for reasons that are natural and those driven by humans.

But he said that “the need for speed should be motivating every climate scientist, every climate policymaker, every climate activist.” He said that slashing methane emissions represents “the single biggest, fastest and cheapest way to reduce warming in the near term.” He said it also lowers the cost “of climate mitigation and the cost of adaptation, and lowers reliance on learning how to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”

Zaelke said it is also “the best way to slow feedbacks and avoid tipping points.”

Russia allows methane leaks at planet’s peril

NOAA said that atmospheric methane measured jumped 17 parts per billion (ppb) in 2021, the largest amount since systematic measurements began in 1983. The increase during 2020 was 15.3 ppb.

Atmospheric methane levels averaged 1,895.7 ppb during 2021, or around 162 percent greater than preindustrial levels.

“The latest increases in methane concentrations reinforce the critical importance of reducing human-caused methane emissions if we are going to slow the rate of increase in warming,” Steven Hamburg, chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, said in an email. “There is agreement in the scientific community that the majority of methane emissions are human caused and account for more than a quarter of the warming we are currently experiencing.”

NOAA also announced that carbon dioxide was also rising at a steady but sobering clip. The global surface average for carbon dioxide during 2021 reached 414.7 parts per million, an increase of 2.66 parts per million over the 2020 average. The figure marks the 10th consecutive year that carbon dioxide increased by more than 2 parts per million, the fastest sustained rate of increase in the 63 years since monitoring began.

“The effect of carbon dioxide emissions is cumulative,” Pieter Tans, senior scientist with the Global Monitoring Laboratory, said in a statement. “About 40 percent of the Ford Model T emissions from 1911 are still in the air today. We’re halfway to doubling the abundance of carbon dioxide that was in the atmosphere at the start of the Industrial Revolution.”

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