Saturday, December 16, 2006

Methane and environmentalism

One tonne of methane has the same global warming effect as 21 tonnes of carbon dioxide, and, on this basis, methane is known to be responsible for approximately 20% of the greenhouse gas effect. And yet one rarely, if ever, hears environmentalists lobbying for political action to control atmospheric methane levels. The arguments of environmentalists appear to focus, almost exclusively, upon carbon dioxide, and the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as a result of the burning of fossil fuels to power cars, aircraft, and the industrial economy in general.

A couple of interesting facts about methane have emerged in the past year, which have received little attention from the media. Firstly, it was discovered that trees and plants actually release large amounts of methane during their normal lifetime. "This effect is completely missing from climate change and biogeochemical models," according to Peter Cox of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, at Winfrith in Dorset, UK. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4604332.stm, http://www.newscientist.com/channel/life/mg18925343.900-the-lungs-of-the-planet-are-belching-methane.html). It had been understood for some time that dead trees and plants release methane into the atmosphere as bacteria consume the dead plant matter. At any one time, a certain proportion of a forest will consist of decaying plant matter, so it was known that a forest is a source of atmospheric methane. The latest research suggests that the methane released by trees and plants during their normal lifetime could be responsible for 10-30% of atmospheric methane production. David Lowe of New Zealand's National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research points out that "We now have the spectre that new forests might increase greenhouse warming through methane emissions rather than decrease it by sequestering carbon dioxide."

One can well understand why environmentalists do not want to publicise such a possibility. Moreover, it has recently been discovered that the growth-rate of atmospheric methane was at its greatest in the 1980s, and there has been no increase at all in the past seven years. (http://environment.newscientist.com/channel/earth/dn10643-emissions-of-key-greenhouse-gas-stabilise.html, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/6170736.stm). As the BBC article states "some scientists and policymakers...suggest that cutting emissions of methane could be a more effective way of curbing climate change than focusing on carbon dioxide."

The lack of attention devoted by environmentalists to methane, and their obsession with carbon dioxide, supports the following hypothesis: most 'environmentalists' are fundamentally motivated by political and economic beliefs, rather than environmental principles alone; a large proportion of 'environmentalists' are anti-capitalists, who see environmentalism as a tool for attacking the industrial, capitalist world economy. The global capitalist economy is largely built upon the burning of fossil fuels, so the anti-capitalists are seeking to bring down the system by attacking its foundation. Hence, many environmentalists argue that the only way to avoid catastrophic climate change is to reduce economic growth, and perhaps to even accept economic contraction. The rational alternative, to transform the efficiency with which we expend our energy resources, seems to receive scant consideration as the overall solution.

Of course, the truth-value of a proposition, and the validity of an argument, is independent of the person expressing that proposition or argument, and independent of the motives they may or may not possess. However, understanding the motives of environmentalists helps one to assess the credibility of their science, and the credibility of their economic proposals.

3 comments:

James Aach said...

That some in the environmentalist movement dislike much of modern society is certainly true. However, this does not mean that all or most of those actively involved in environmental issues share the same thoughts or goals. Frequently, it is the most extreme elements of any position that get the most press. I believe it would be appropriate to better define who you mean by the term 'environmentalist' before moving on to make generalizations about their motives.

It is also true that global warming is often simplified to just a campaign against CO2 emissions, when it is more complex than that, involving other gases such as methane and nitrous oxide, feedback mechanisms and natural climate cycles. Many are guilty of this, from the media to politicians to those who embrace or attack climate change concerns. However, given how long it has taken the general public to begin to understand the climate change issue in any form, it is not surprising that those involved in discussing the matter have learned (or been driven) to simply it as much as possible.

When one looks further into the subject, you encounter stories such as the one you have presented - that living organic matter releases methane. Also, however, one finds in the same story that the full impact of this is clearly not yet understood. Also, it is worth noting that methane is removed from the atmosphere via chemical processes within twenty years, whereas CO2 remains for a far longer time period. (The main CO2 removal mechanism is via living plants.) In addition, as stated in one of the referenced articles, methane levels have stayed nearly flat for the last few years - perhaps due in part to sealing leaks in gas pipelines, capturing and using methane from landfill sites and farm effluent, and changing farming practices to reduce emissions from rice paddies. The same report also has scientists stating that CO2 is still the "800 pound gorilla" of climate change.

You also note that energy efficiency should be discussed more. I couldn't agree more. The first, second and third priorities of any energy policy for any country should be conservation (increased efficiency). However, it's also true though that the Western world we use a truly HUGE amount of energy, and more than better efficiency is needed in the long run. But in the short run - yes, increasing efficiency should be at the top of the list.

James Aach
20+ years in the US nuclear industry
Author of "Rad Decision: A Novel of Nuclear Power" RadDecision.blogspot.com

Gordon McCabe said...

Cheers James, a quality contribution.

simon said...

The world is focused upon cutting CO2 emission because it’s the least humans can do. Although we cannot retain consumerism or the throw away society as well, so its doubtful that humans will.
It is true that CO2 drops out of the atmosphere after being absorbed by life on the surface, and equally true that the same volumes are released on the surface in an uninterrupted flow cycle, in a self sustaining positive feed back loop. The additional co2, or ‘accelerated global warming gases, is added to the atmospheric load by the burning of fossil fuels.
Methane is created by bacteria in decomposing forest litter, in a hydro electric dam or from the city sewer and through chemical process the methane is removed in a few decades once in the atmosphere. However methane traps 21 times more heat while in circulation before it is transformed into a greater volume of co2 in atmospheric processes where the co2 created by processed methane continues to insulate the planet.
This system would work if the planet was ¾ forests instead of ocean.
Global warming has accelerated in the last decade, so much so that we can no longer argue about the cause. Now we can observe that the Gulf Stream has slowed by 30% and CO2 absorbing plankton numbers are threatened, while at the same time we have been made aware that rainforests are dieing in droughts while forests are burning in wildfires around the world as temperatures climb to record highs.
Now we should decide what happens next.
Global warming is melting both poles and the Tundra; permafrost is turning to marsh which is venting large quantities of methane as I write. Pipelines carrying gas across Siberia are buckling and in Alaska pipelines spewing oil have already fractured. In the ocean Methane hydrates are beginning to defrost and erupt to the surface off the coast of the USA and in the Timor Sea.
We can ignore the methane threat and pretend its just an environmentalist plot to wrestle power away from the G8, or we can see it for what it is.
Turbo charged global warming.