Although its presence in the atmosphere is less than that of carbon dioxide (CO2)—the most abundant and well-known greenhouse gas—methane is much more effective at retaining heat due to its chemical composition. Therefore, adding smaller amounts of methane to the atmosphere can have an effect equal to that of adding tremendous amounts of CO2.
Since 2006, the amount of methane in the atmosphere has grown considerably—by about 25 million tons per year. Studies have associated this increase with the leakage and burning of methane from the extraction of unconventional hydrocarbons through the process of fracking, or hydraulic fracturing.
Although extracting gas through fracking is sold as a “greener” alternative to other fossil fuels, it is a false narratiave that must be combatted.
In general, all activities that cause methane emissions aggravate the climate crisis and the increasingly urgent need to combat air pollution.
The common understanding of methane is inaccurate. Therefore, it’s necessary to generate more awareness about what it is and what its real impacts are. What follows are five basic facts about methane.
Methane is a greenhouse gas.The Greenhouse Effect is a natural phenomena in which the atmosphere, composed of different gases, captures some rays of the sun and keeps them trapped in order to balance the temperature of the planet. When an excess of gases such as methane are emitted, the atmosphere traps more heat than necessary, leading to global warming.
Methane has 67 times more power than CO2 to warm the planet over a 20-year period. Its emissions are responsible for nearly 25 percent of global warming. And since it stays less time in the atmosphere—12 years on average (CO2 stays for centuries)—it is among the Short Lived Climate Pollutants (SLCPs), which cause 40-45 percent of global warming and damage air quality.
About 60 percent of the methane in the atmosphere is considered by scientists to be caused by human activity, while the other 40 percent comes from natural sources like wetlands, volcanoes, and permafrost.
Human sources include livestock, gas and petroleum exploitation, rice farming, mining (particularly coal mining), and landfills. It should be noted that, according to scientific evidence, reservoirs are also an important source of methane. They generate 1.3 percent of all greenhouse gases worldwide each year, more than all of Canada's polluting emissions, and 80 percent of that pollution is from methane.
Large amounts of methane are intentionally leaked or released during the exploitation, processing, and transportation of oil and gas. In the United States alone, such direct emissions amount to 13 million tons each year. When released into the atmosphere, methane is accompanied by other toxic pollutants such as benzene, formaldehyde, and ethylbenzene.
In addition, by interacting with solar radiation, methane promotes the formation of ground-level ozone (O3), another short-lived climate pollutant (CCVC) and the main component of smog. Methane gas flaring also produces black carbon and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are also CCVCs.
As mentioned, methane emissions promote the formation of ozone found in the lower layers of the atmosphere, which has serious impacts on public health. It irritates the airways, generates a feeling of burning and shortness of breath, complicates asthma, causes lung dysfunction and even premature death, and alters the immune system's response, reducing its ability to respond to diseases such as COVID-19, which mainly affects the airways.
And since methane burning generates black carbon, it is relevant to point out that it is a key component of particulate matter (PM 2.5)—particles that are 35 times smaller than a grain of sand. These particles cannot be filtered or retained naturally in the nose, and can even enter the lungs. Particulate matter is the air pollutant most frequently associated with cardiovascular, respiratory, and pulmonary diseases, including lung cancer.
Since methane, in addition to aggravating the climate crisis, deteriorates air quality and with it human health, it is urgent to act to curb its emissions.
Civil society must demand that governments efficiently regulate methane emissions from the hydrocarbon industry and other sectors such as coal mining and industrial livestock. In addition, we must demand the monitoring of emissions, as well as the production and dissemination of timely information about methane’s damage to our air quality.