Despite COVID-19-induced lockdowns around the world, methane levels in the atmosphere saw a record surge during 2020, marking the biggest increase since records began in 1983.
What is Happening?
- New data by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows that both atmospheric methane and carbon dioxide reached record levels last year, despite COVID-19, which brought much of the world’s economy to a halt.
- Methane concentrations rose by 14.7 parts per billion in 2020, while levels of carbon dioxide rose to 412.5 parts per million during 2020, about 12% higher than the levels in 2000.
Lori Bruhwiler, physical scientist at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the jump in methane levels was “fairly surprising- and disturbing,” adding that the exact reasons for the increase are not yet known.
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- Methane is about 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide. About 60% of methane emissions are linked to human activity, while the rest arise naturally from environments such as swamps or melting permafrost.
- Carbon dioxide emissions fell about 6% last year because of the pandemic but as economies re-opened, they quickly rebounded.
- The researchers said that the sudden increase in methane concentrations came as a surprise. One hypothesis for the increase is a rise in emissions from biological sources such as wetlands. Euan Nisbet, professor of earth sciences at Royal Holloway University of London, says, “Parts of the tropics have grown warmer and wetter” because of global warming, triggering the release of more methane.”
- Another hypothesis is that the atmosphere’s ability to sequester methane by breaking it down over time has declined.
“A warming planet could be causing more natural emissions of methane,” said Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, an environmental charity based in Washington DC that focuses on short lived climate pollutants such as methane.
- Cutting methane emissions can slow global warming more quickly than reducing carbon dioxide, because methane does not stay in the atmosphere for as long.
- Methane is also given off by oil and gas extraction; this has been an area of concern in the US since former president Donald Trump loosened regulations governing them. President Joe Biden is preparing to tighten the rules.
- The current levels of atmospheric methane are far away from what is needed to meet the Paris Agreement target of limiting warming to 1.5C.
Nisbet says, “I knew it was bad, but I didn’t know it was this bad. This breaks my heart.”