This year’s Earth Day comes on the heels of some alarming climate news. But if we act now, we can make a huge difference.
This April, scientists observed a record annual increase in methane levels in the atmosphere for the second year in a row. It’s the largest increase since record-keeping began.
Methane is a greenhouse gas that’s over 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide. It’s a major contributor to global warming.
Man-made sources of methane —from fossil fuels to factory farms and landfills — dominate our atmosphere today. But about 40 percent of the methane now in the atmosphere comes from natural sources like wetlands and melting permafrost.
Scientists worry these natural sources of methane will grow rapidly as the world warms.
This is a serious threat. Scientists believe a major burst of methane released into the atmosphere 56 million years ago resulted in a mass extinction event. About half of the marine organisms that comprise the fossil record were wiped out.
At last year’s UN climate summit in Scotland, the global community seemed to wake up to the methane emergency: Over 110 countries signed onto the non-binding Global Methane Pledge, committing to reduce their man-made methane emissions by 30 percent by the end of the decade. The United States was among them.
The Global Methane Pledge has the potential to significantly reduce global temperature increases. But it doesn’t address rising natural sources of methane, and we’d still be on track to blow past the upper temperature limits set by the Paris Climate Agreement.
There’s a way forward, but it must start with a clear-eyed vision commensurate with the urgency of the methane emergency we now face.
On the policy front, we need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, rapidly scale up renewables, halt and reverse deforestation, and expand regenerative agriculture. We also need to get more countries to sign the Global Methane Pledge — and make it binding.
But some scientists also believe we can start removing methane from the atmosphere now.
For example, we may be able to use solar-powered convection to pull large volumes of air into chimneys. If we line those chimneys with substances like titanium dioxide, they could break down greenhouse gasses, including methane, into water and carbon dioxide.
Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere also needs to be limited and drawn down. But since it traps less heat than methane, this sort of technology could slow warming while we scale up other technologies to reduce and remove carbon dioxide emissions as well.
Methane removal technologies like this could potentially prevent between 0.4° and 1° Celsius of warming by 2050 — which would have a huge positive impact globally.
That would help us avoid the apocalyptic scenario outlined under the latest 2022 international climate report, which forecast a jaw-dropping average 3.2°C rise in global temperatures. Scaling up methane removal technology could also equip us to deal with the possibility of a sudden increase of biogenic methane.
This April, over a thousand scientists and academics recently engaged in civil disobedience, risking arrest to tell us our current climate trajectory is suicidal.
We’ll still need policy solutions to transition us off fossil fuel production and other practices that damage our climate. But let’s empower the scientists to start working on methane removal today. What’s needed now is the research and development funding to get started.
By funding this research, we can get onto a different trajectory and restore atmospheric methane to safe levels. This Earth Day, that would be a significant step on the path toward restoring the climate.
Daphne Wysham is the CEO of Methane Action, a nonprofit with a mission to pursue the science and policy advances needed, under careful global governance, to restore atmospheric methane to safe levels.