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Global Methane Emissions Soar to Record High

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Last month, an international team of scientists, including Berkeley Lab’s William Riley and Qing Zhu, published an update on the global methane budget as part of the Global Carbon Project. They estimated annual global methane emissions at nearly 570 million tons for the 2008 to 2017 decade, which is 5% higher than emissions recorded for the early 2000s and the equivalent of 189 million more cars on the world’s roads.

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Tropical and temperate regions have seen the biggest jump in methane emissions. Boreal and polar systems have played a lesser role. Despite fears that melting in the Arctic may unlock a burst of methane from thawing permafrost, the researchers found no evidence for increasing methane emissions in the Arctic -- at least through 2017.Human driven emissions are in many ways easier to pin down than those from natural sources. "We have a surprisingly difficult time identifying where methane is emitted in the tropics and elsewhere because of daily to seasonal changes in how waterlogged soils are," said Jackson, who also leads a group at Stanford working to map wetlands and waterlogged soils worldwide using satellites, flux towers and other tools. According to Jackson and colleagues, curbing methane emissions will require reducing fossil fuel use and controlling fugitive emissions such as leaks from pipelines and wells, as well as changes to the way we feed cattle, grow rice and eat. "We'll need to eat less meat and reduce emissions associated with cattle and rice farming," Jackson said, "and replace oil and natural gas in our cars and homes." Feed supplements such as algae may help to reduce methane burps from cows, and rice farming can transition away from permanent waterlogging that maximizes methane production in low-oxygen environments

Aircraft, drones and satellites show promise for monitoring methane from oil and gas wells. Jackson said, "I'm optimistic that, in the next five years, we'll make real progress in that area."

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One area where plastic pipelines are more susceptible to causing emissions is as a result of interference damage (this may in part explain the high US leakage numbers). This is where a third party accidentally damages a gas pipeline whilst excavating. The nature of polyethylene pipes is that they are susceptible to fracturing if struck forcefully and can therefore emit large volumes of gas – particularly in the case of medium pressure pipelines. Minimising the possibility of interference damage is therefore an important component of a leakage reduction strategy (Carlarne C. et al, 2016). Other emission sources at the distribution stage can include metering and regulating stations and intentional venting during operations

In most countries, leaks in customer services and meters are dealt with as a priority due to safety considerations though where retail meter installations are located away from the property (as in many parts of the US) these can also be a cause of sustained leakage. The explosive property of methane means that gas leaks from distribution systems are attended to quickly, although this does not always mean the leaks are repaired quickly. Leaks are typically prioritized according to safety criteria and those that do not present a hazard are deferred or reprogrammed. This can result in venting to the atmosphere for prolonged periods (Larsen et al (2015).

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Ultimately, the sources of methane have been described and quantified. It is shown that “a priori” estimates can be improved by inverse modelling. Still, uncertainties are not completely resolved. From a particular methane concentration field and information on the isotopic content of the methane different budgets can still be constructed. To further improve the methane emission estimates, careful bottom-up research and upscaling to country or regional totals is necessary. The reporting obligations under the Climate Convention and the Kyoto Protocol have been very beneficial in this respect. Satellite data on methane concentration fields and profiles in the troposphere have helped to further resolve the uncertainties in the budgets.

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Carlarne C. et al, 2016 The Oxford Handbook of International Climate Change Law, OUP, 2016.

Lamb et al 2015 Lamb, Brian K. et al. “Direct Measurements Show Decreasing Methane Emissions from Natural Gas Local Distribution Systems in the United States.” Environmental Science and Technology, published online, March 31, 2015.

Larsen et al (2015) “Untapped potential - Reducing Global Methane Emissions from Oil and Natural Gas Systems” Kate Larsen, Michael Delgado and Peter Marsters

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