Tuesday, October 24, 2006


[click on the title above to hear the 15 minute audio broadcast]

From Radio Ecoshock, www.ecoshock.org.

The United States, the world’s largest source of human-made greenhouse gases, has ditched global efforts to control carbon dioxide pollution. Instead, following an alternative suggested by top NASA scientists, including James Hansen, America has developed a plan to control trace gases in the atmosphere, principally methane.

American scientists now claim that methane, as a greenhouse gas, and as a chemical agent that produces more harmful ozone, itself a greenhouse gas – may account for up to 30 percent of climate change. Through the EPA, the administration has set up a program to capture waste methane from landfill sites, coal mines, and other sources. Their Plan B for trace gases, the only plan to save the planet’s climate implemented by this administration, has been expanded to include about a dozen other countries – but not the top methane emitters.

Politically, the methane control plan has many advantages for the Bush administration. It leaves the oil companies and coal mining companies free to add unrestrained carbon to the atmosphere. Methane can be re-used as a valuable energy source when captured. And most human-induced methane comes from other less developed countries, instead of the United States. The onus for climate control falls on the major emitters, China, Russia, India, and Brazil.

Even if the plan makes scientific sense, it seems destined for failure in the realities of less developed countries with few resources. Still, the Methane to Markets Partnership is the only plan the United States, and now other countries like Canada, have in play. So we need to examine their claims that global warming and smog can be combated with the same program.

To understand what is being proposed, and whether it will save us, we need to educate ourselves about methane. We need to understand how this gas leads to chemical reactions in the atmosphere that is already killing millions of us by ground-level smog, and threatening all of us, by providing from 20 to 30 percent of the warming in our atmosphere.

Welcome to our rapid-fire methane primer. It’s the introduction to our second part in this series, the justification and evaluation of the trace gas control proposal emerging in many countries. We call that “the methane fix.”


Methane is an odorless gas at normal temperatures on Earth. Gas companies add a sulfur compound to let people know when it is leaking. Chemically, it is made up of one carbon atom attached to 4 hydrogen atoms, or CH4. Methane is the main ingredient of natural gas, which we burn in home heating, electricity production, and even to power automobiles.

When we burn methane, in the presence of oxygen, energy is released along with one molecule of carbon dioxide, and two molecules of water. That's less carbon dioxide that when oil or coal is burned, so methane gas is considered a cleaner burning fuel, from the perspective of climate change gases - but it still releases CO2 into the atmosphere.

Compared to other gases like nitrogen or oxygen, methane is fairly rare. In every ten million molecules of air, about 16 are methane. Yet on other planets, such as Saturn's moon Titan, methane is the dominant gas.

Methane itself is not toxic, but it is very explosive. Such explosions are the number one cause of the numerous deaths that occur during coal mining all over the world. There are also risks of natural gas explosions.

As natural gas, methane is difficult to transport long distances because it is so bulky. Other than pipelines, we would need gigantic containers to move it as a gas. The gas can be compressed if it is liquefied, at a temperature hundreds of degrees below zero. We call this Liquefied Natural Gas, or LNG.


Scientists agree to measure the global warming potential of a gas by comparing it to a molecule of carbon dioxide, over a period of 100 years. By that measure, methane has 21 times the global warming potential of CO2, according to the EPA (other estimates vary slightly). A single molecule of methane will heat the Earth as much as 21 molecules of carbon dioxide. It is a powerful greenhouse gas.

Some sources say methane has doubled since the industrial age began in 1750, others say it has increased by 150%. Studies in ice cores show current methane levels are higher than at any time during the past 400,000 years.

Some scientific studies, done by Dickinson, Cicerone, and Ramanathan, estimate the heating impacts of methane in the atmosphere to be about half the amount generated by carbon dioxide. Others say methane is responsible for only 20% of global warming. The question is made more complicated by the fact that fossil fuel burning, the major source of CO2, also emits pollution particles that cool the Earth at the same time. More on this later.

Methane is recognized by the Kyoto Protocol as a greenhouse gas that needs to be controlled. Since methane is at least 20 times more powerful than CO2, removing 1 ton of methane is as good as removing 20 tons of CO2.


Methane is produced naturally on the planet from a variety of sources. Some rises from the Earth itself through mud volcanoes. The science of Earth bound methane is not fully understood yet.

We do understand how methane is produced by the plant world. When plant material rots without oxygen around, different bacteria are involved. That's called anaerobic decomposition - which means without air. For example, when plant matter decomposes under a wet swamp - it produces methane. The same can happen under permanently frozen ground, permafrost. Wetlands are the largest source of natural methane, about 76% of Nature's production of the gas comes from them. Tropical wetlands are a key factor.

Recent research from the Max Planck Institute in Germany has shown that plants also produce some methane during photosynthesis. So forests and grasslands make some methane, but that greenhouse gas is thought to be less than the total carbon dioxide warming potential consumed by plants, leaving forests as greenhouse gas reducers, or sinks. More science remains to be done on this balance.

The oceans, lakes, and soils also emit some methane. Termites, and some ruminating animals, such as cows, produce methane. There is another worrying collection of methane gas trapped in ice on the ocean floor. This is called methyl hydrate. If the oceans warm too much, this methane-laden slush could melt, releasing bubbles of global warming gases to the surface. There is some evidence this is already happening.

Climate change may also release more methane, by heating up the permafrost in Siberia and Northern Canada. Recent research shows five times more methane coming from Siberia than previously thought.

But more than half of all methane rising into the atmosphere comes from human-related activities. The 2001 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, estimated that 60% of methane comes from our agriculture, industry, and waste. Humans are the biggest single source of methane.

In North America and Europe, the largest single source of methane comes from landfills, where our consumer waste decomposes under soil, without enough air. All our packaging, food waste, and industrial waste produces more global warming gases. If we reduce waste, we reduce climate change. In 2002, the United States EPA calculates that American landfills produced methane equavalent to 131 million metric tonnes of CO2.

Cattle, sheep produce methane in their stomachs as they digest plant material. Despite jokes about "farts" - these animals release methane through their noses. The EPA figured 114 million metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent came from methane produced by agricultural animals. But animal manure, especially from pigs, also produces prodigious amounts of methane, namely 39 million metric tonnes equivalent of CO2. If we add these two figures, American factory farms for meat production were responsible for 153 million metric tonnes equivalent of CO2 - more than landfills, and the largest single source of methane in the United States. Vegetarians argue a simple change of diet could stop the largest source of methane greenhouse gas, and we'll get to that argument in a separate program, called "The Methane Fix".

Human excrement also creates a lot of methane in wastewater treatment plants. Petroleum systems, especially leaky natural gas lines, add more methane to the atmosphere. Other lesser sources in the United States were rice cultivation, (where plant material rots underwater, just like in swamps,) and old coal mines.

The world-wide picture is a bit different - and with climate change, global emissions are what count. First of all, unlike carbon dioxide, the United States is not the biggest source of methane as a greenhouse gas. According to the U.S. Department of State, the largest emitters, in order of importance, are China, Russia (along with its former Republics), India - then the United States, followed by Brazil. These countries account for about half of all the human induced - or anthropogenic - methane released into the atmosphere.

In China, the biggest methane source, less comes from consumer waste, and most comes from rice paddies and coal mines. The largest human-made methane source in the number two country, Russia, comes from inefficient natural gas and oil systems. India's main methane contributions come from rice and livestock.

Some calculate that the industrialized world is responsible for about 20% of human-induced methane, and developing countries 80%.

So tackling methane emissions requires different strategies in different parts of the world. Note that fossil fuels and animal husbandry are methane problems all over the world. But we have to remember, this is not a smoke-stack problem which can be regulated by changes in big industry. Most of our sources of methane come from a wide-variety of normal human activities in the modern world. Even vegetarians eating rice are connected to methane from rice paddies. There is still disagreement about just how much methane comes from rice production, and we don't have firm figures.


Methane is removed from the lower atmosphere (called the "troposphere") by a chemical process. It reacts with a rare and unstable combination of a single oxygen atom and a single hydrogen atom, called a "hydroxyl radical." That's a term worth learning, because our future climate may partly depend upon having enough hydroxyl radicals. Many of us have learned about "anti-oxidants" to preserve our health, we need to know about hydroxyl radicals to preserve the planet's health.

Some methane is also lost to oxidation in soil, but this is minor compared to chemical reactions occurring in the atmosphere. Some methane eventually escapes upward into the stratosphere.

Just how long methane can last in the atmosphere before it is zapped by hydroxyl radicals is still debated. Some sources say less than ten years, while others say up to 15 years. It is also possible that global warming may change the processes that remove methane, increasing its lifetime in the atmosphere.

In any case, methane doesn't last anywhere near as long as carbon dioxide, which, once created, can stay in the atmosphere 100 years or more. Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas, but it doesn't last as long.

For reasons not yet understood, the level of methane in the atmosphere appears to have stabilized (at the much higher levels) since the 1990s. A study in 2003 by Dlugokencky reveals a steady level of methane between 1999 and 2002 at 1751 parts per billion by volume (ppbv).

Unlike CO2, the American government has taken steps to reduce methane emissions below 1990 levels, but this could not account for the current methane plateau in the atmosphere - given larger inputs from China, Russia, and India.

It is possible that drying of tropical wetlands, including the Brazilian Amazon, likely from climate change, may have offset the new methane coming from increased industrialization and agriculture, and even the warming in the Arctic. We don't know.

That is the scary part. We think human-induced methane emissions are rising around the world, despite some claimed reductions in a few industrialized countries. The latest science also points to new sources of natural methane, in large volumes, ready to be released by the melting Arctic tundra, and frozen methane from the bed of a warming sea. And we have no idea what is holding back this new wave of global warming gases for the past couple of years.

Scientists worry that world temperatures could jump rather suddenly, possibly within a few years, if the mysterious methane barrier is broken. The Americans, and their partners in the industrialized world, have a plan to control methane and some other trace greenhouse gases in their own countries. Some major scientists, including NASA’s James Hansen, have backed a methane control plan as a way to stave off the worst of climate change.

That is “the methane fix” – the subject of our next broadcast. Find it at www.ecoshock.org under “climate” in the Audio on Demand menu.

Or just look at the previous article in this blog.


A report from Radio Ecoshock.
- Alex Smith

This is the third in a series of broadcasts about the American-led alternative to controlling carbon dioxide emissions, in the desperate fight to control global climate change. The first part was an interview with Dr. Phil Austen an atmospheric scientist. That was followed by a primer on methane: what it is, where it comes from, and how it damages both our health and the climate. These can be downloaded from our website at www.ecoshock.org.

Now we look at the American program to control methane, as proposed by top NASA scientists, and as adopted by several industrialized countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia, and lately Canada. Can it work? Or will we fry?

A group of scientists from Harvard University, the Argonne National Laboratory and the EPA say that both air pollution and global warming could be mitigated by controlling methane gas. You will hear this proposal coming from various governments: "We'll fight smog, for your personal health, and stave off global warming - all at the same time!" Let's investigate.

In addition to its own global warming potential, methane is directly related to the production of ozone in the lower atmosphere (the troposphere) - and ozone is also a greenhouse gas (as well as a killing agent in smog). The IPCC predicts more and more intense ozone pollution and smog by the year 2030, despite pollution control efforts. While the smog inducing nitrous oxides may decline up to 10% in developed countries, it is expected to increase by 130% in developing countries. And the A1 scenario from the IPCC predicts methane emissions could increase by 43 percent globally by 2030. That is why there could be worse global smog, despite localized benefits from pollution controls by industrialized countries.

In one example of this trend of linking smog and global warming, Arlene M. Fiore wrote an article in Geophysical Research letters in October 2002. Where there is plenty of methane, in the presence of nitrous oxide and sunlight, smog is the inevitable result, and much of that is so-called ground-level ozone, a Greenhouse Gas. If we could limit methane, while cleaning up nitrous oxide, we could curb smog and global warming at the same time, the argument goes.

An even stronger case for going after trace gases like methane, ozone, and nitrous oxide was made by James Hansen, the climate expert from NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Dr. Hansen has a long career in the field, and is well-regarded by environmentalists. He was the subject of recent news articles claiming to be muzzled by the Bush Whitehouse.

According to an article in the Proceedings of the national Academy of Sciences, Hansen and Makiko Sato claim that the climate could be stabilized with warming less than 1 degree, just by reducing methane and other trace gases - even if carbon dioxide zooms up to 520 parts per million. The authors suggested adding these trace gases to the Montreal Protocol, as a method of control.

Here is what Hansen said about it:

""Carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas (GHG), and slowdown of its emissions must have priority. It will be a growing issue in international relations for decades, if not longer," .... "However, that does not necessarily mean that 'Kyoto' is the best way to address the trace gases. 'Kyoto' gives too little or no weight to gases such as methane, the trace gas HFC-134a, ozone and the precursor gases that form ozone. We could get moving now on non-carbon dioxide gases with benefits such as improved human health, in addition to a slowing of global warming. The resulting international good will might also make discussions about carbon dioxide more productive."

These scientists add that controlling human-made trace gases could more rapidly control warming, and so reduce the positive feed-back loops that could release natural methane from such sources as frozen methane (called clathrates) in the ocean, or from the Siberian permafrost melting.

This approach was also promoted by scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Germany. Jos Lelieveld, at atmosphere chemist there, says:

""It will be very difficult to control carbon dioxide in the short-term future. Not only because of energy [consumption] and political consequences, but also because the lifetime of carbon dioxide is enormously long."...

"And so if climate change is really affecting our daily lives in a really undesirable way-like stronger hurricanes or more droughts in some areas-then there may be the desire to do something on the short term." ...

"One of the few alternatives that we have there is to reduce methane."

So the American approach, under the pro-oil Bush administration, is to combine efforts to fight smog, with the battle to control global warming. As there is no effort from the world's biggest carbon dioxide polluter to limit CO2, the methane and trace gas approach is not just Plan A - it is their only plan. That is why we have to understand methane, ozone, and other trace gases - to find out whether this is just more fantasy, or a real plan that could work.

Another NASA scientist, Drew Shindell is calling for a whole new way of studying greenhouse gases. The IPCC scientists have generally totaled the amount of all greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, to create models of expected climate change. Shindell says we have to look closer to the Earth's surface, to see where these gases are coming from, and how they interact chemically, before they end up as totals in the upper atmosphere.

For example, just knowing the raw data on the amount of methane produced doesn't give a good picture. Methane reacts with other chemicals, such as nitrous oxide and carbon monoxide from automobile and industrial exhausts, to change atmospheric chemistry, including producing more ground-level ozone.

Shindell's study suggests that methane may have double the impact on global warming, compared to previous calculations. The IPCC, just looking at the total amount of methane accumulated, attributed about one sixth of global warming was due to methane. But when all the chemical reactions related to methane are added, including the tropospheric ozone, methane may be responsible for as much as one third of the climate change we are seeing.

Shindell writes:

"If we control methane, which the U.S. is already starting to do, then we are likely to mitigate global warming more than one would have thought, so that's a very positive outcome," .... "Control of methane emissions turns out to be a more powerful lever to control global warming than would be anticipated."

And we have another paper forwarded by James Hansen, in January 2006, by Arlene Fiore and other scientists, titled "Global health benefits of mitigating ozone pollution with methane emission controls." The authors argue that controlling methane will greatly reduce human deaths from pollution, because it reduces surface ozone as well. The savings in greenhouse gases are a bonus to cutting smog, they argue.

According to this study, reducing human-made methane emissions by just 20 percent, beginning in 2010, could prevent 30,000 deaths around the world in 2030. Whether that makes sense economically depends on how we value the added years to human lives. Is it cost-effective, when each extended life costs about $420,000 in methane control costs? For a Westerner, or if it happens to be your own life, or someone you love, you would answer "yes." Still, the main emphasis is reducing human deaths from air pollution, by controlling methane, rather than saving planetary life by controlling carbon dioxide, the gas considered by most to be the main actor in runaway climate change.

Meanwhile, other studies indicate that all countries are emitting far more methane than they declare. Bergamachi, for example, suggests the UK released 4.2 million tonnes of methane in 2004, instead of the 2.1 million tonnes declared by the government. During this study, the German government raised its estimates of methane emissions by 70%.

And that's in Europe. The largest sources, China, Russia, and India, don't really know how much methane they are releasing, and have very little in place to stop the hemorrhaging of this powerful greenhouse gas.

When we measure total methane in the atmosphere, the recent annual increases are being kept in check, in just the last few years, by some natural agent. We don't know what that protective mechanism may be, or how temporary it is. We could see a methane surge, with temperatures going up one to three degrees globally in a few years. That is possible.


The single largest source of methane in the developed countries is landfills leaking methane from the mountains of pointless consumer waste. If you demand less packaging, recycle more, and waste less, methane could be substantially reduced.

Your second personal option is also quite straight forward. Become a Vegan - a vegetarian with no animal products or bi-products. That's the solution offered by a group called EarthSave. At www.earthsave.org/globalwarming.htm you can find the controversial article titled "A New Global Warming Strategy: How Environmentalists are Overlooking Vegetarianism as the Most Effective Tool Against Climate Change in Our Lifetimes," by Noam Mohr.

Animal husbandry may be the single largest human-made source of methane on the planet, when you add direct emissions from the animals, plus the gases coming from treatment of manure.

We have a massive increase of meat eating - 5 times more meat in North America, for instance. That is matched by a massive increase in the number of cows, pigs, and sheep. There are over a billion cows eating their way through feed grown with fossil fuels. In fact, modern agriculture uses natural gas - methane - to produce fertilizer. That gas leaks at production sites, at refineries, in pipelines, and in final use.

An article in the New Scientist in December, 2005 said that when all these fossil fuel inputs to factory farmed meat are considered, plus the methane produced by animals, you do more for the planet by changing to a Vegan diet, than buying a hybrid car. A meat eater produces the equivalent of almost 1.5 tonnes more carbon dioxide annually than a Vegan does.

The exact figures for animal use, and a proposal to trim back methane through changes of diet have not been considered seriously. Obviously, we'd rather burn in Hell than give up the burgers for a healthier diet, and a safer atmosphere.


Since the United States has no coherent plan to reduce carbon dioxide, it has invested a relatively small portion of its budget in a single plan, as proposed by it's NASA scientists, to reduce methane and other trace greenhouse gases. The Bush administration has actually reduced American methane emissions to 5% below 1990 levels, a kind of Kyoto for trace gases.

This effort is led by the Environmental Protection Agency, and spans many different government departments. It's called the Methane to Markets Partnership. For example, the government has helped coal mines in America capture methane to run power operations, and aided local governments who want to install methane capture devices to landfills. This government likes methane programs because they capture energy that has re-sale and re-use value, whereas carbon capture is more or less a straight expense with little payback, if any.

The Methane to Markets Partnership has been promoted as an international effort. So far Australia, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and most recently Canada, have become partners in the program. Each country tries to reduce its methane by recovering it.

Notice that the largest methane producers, Russia, China, India, and Brazil are not partners in this America effort. However, the Americans have invested a few million dollars in pilot projects in Asia. In 2006, the World Bank's Global Environment Facility is spending 7 million dollars, over 5 years!, to "support a comprehensive approach" to reduce the impact of concentrated livestock production there. Hardly a major investment in one of the top methane producing countries.

It's difficult to see how a global supply of this powerful greenhouse gas can be reined in without a much larger commitment by all countries, and a huge budget to implement it. In addition, the sources of methane are very diverse. Can we really re-work the way all Chinese and other Asian rice paddies are planted? Does the government of India have the control and resources to deliver top quality feed to all its cattle? Plus manure processing with methane capture facilities? Can we re-educate every peasant farmer?

What happens if the current methane capping mechanism, whatever that turns out to be, breaks down? What happens if natural sources of methane are released in large quantities, as a feed-back and bi-product of global warming, caused by uncontrolled carbon dioxide levels?

As a plan to save the planet, the methane fix has holes larger than the growing ozone hole in the stratosphere. We may please city dwellers by cutting down smog. We may have interesting looking pipes and plants to recapture methane in a few places. We may even reduce world-wide emissions of methane from human sources - and we must. But the methane scheme is just a secondary alternative to facing the carbon beast head on. Sadly, it looks like a political fix for an oil-based White House, and their supporting cast of other oil burners around the world.

Find out more about climate change from Radio Ecoshock, full-time environment radio, and downloadable broadcasts, at www.ecoshock.org.