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Methane in atmosphere hits new high, rising at fastest rate recorded, NOAA says

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere remains the primary and the long-term driver of climate change, but methane is more potent in the near term.
Cows on a dairy farm
Cows eat a feed mixture at a dairy farm in Elberta, Utah, on March 11.George Frey / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

The amount of methane in the atmosphere has spiked to historic highs and is increasing at its fastest recorded rate, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The greenhouse gas — which is the second-biggest contributor to Earth’s warming — is more potent than carbon dioxide, the primary driver of climate change, but also breaks down much quicker, which makes its impacts more short-lived. 

Reining in methane emissions could be one of the easiest and most effective immediate actions to slow down climate change, some experts say.

Atmospheric methane levels rose by 17 parts per billion in 2021, NOAA said in a Thursday news release. Total levels of atmospheric methane are 162 percent greater than preindustrial levels and about 15 percent higher than they were several decades ago. 

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere remains the primary and long-term driver of climate change. Its levels also continue to increase and reach new highs, the agency said.

Reducing methane pollution has become a recent focus during international climate talks. Even though it is a short-lived driver of climate change, methane can have a pronounced effect because it absorbs much more heat and energy than carbon dioxide. 

“Our data show that global emissions continue to move in the wrong direction at a rapid pace,” NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad said in a news release. “Reducing methane emissions is an important tool we can use right now to lessen the impacts of climate change in the near term, and reduce the rate of warming.”

The most recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change analysis estimated that methane’s potential contribution to global warming is more than 81 times that of an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide when impacts are measured over 20 years.

Methane accounted for about 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, according to the latest IPCC report

Methane has many sources. It is the primary component of natural gas, a byproduct of raising livestock like cows and a gas that’s released as organic matter decays in wetlands. 

Jae Edmonds, a chief scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s Joint Global Change Research Institute and contributor to the recent IPCC report, said methane represents both a challenge and an opportunity for easy progress toward getting climate change under control.

“It’s both good news and bad news. Its human-related sources are quite varied, many of which are relatively straightforward to tackle,” Edmonds said in an interview about the newest IPCC findings. 

Capturing methane produced by landfills, eating less meat from ruminant livestock, shifting how livestock are nourished and “tightening up” the production and transportation of natural gas could make a sizable difference in global warming by reducing methane emissions. 

The IPCC estimated about 6 percent of global methane emissions are “fugitive emissions” leaked during the production and transportation of fossil fuels.

In November, President Joe Biden announced new environmental regulations that aim to curb methane produced in fossil fuel production.