Control methane now, greenhouse gas expert warns

May 14, 2014 by Blaine Friedlander
Photo of landfill burn off flare. Credit: Eddie Hagler/Public Domain

(Phys.org) —As the shale gas boom continues, the atmosphere receives more methane, adding to Earth's greenhouse gas problem. A Cornell ecology professor fears that we may not be many years away from an environmental tipping point – and disaster.

"We have to control immediately, and natural gas is the largest methane pollution source in the United States," said Robert Howarth, the David R. Atkinson Professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology, who explains in an upcoming journal article that Earth may reach the point of no return if average global temperatures rise by 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius in future decades. "If we hit a climate-system tipping point because of methane, our carbon dioxide problem is immaterial. We have to get a handle on methane, or increasingly risk global catastrophe."

Howarth's study, "A Bridge to Nowhere: Methane Emissions and the Greenhouse Gas Footprint of Natural Gas," will be published May 20 in the journal Energy Science and Engineering.

Natural gas – that once seemingly promising link between the era of oil and coal to the serenity of sustainable solar, wind and water power – is a major source of , due to widespread leaks as well as purposeful venting of gas. Howarth points to "," a measure of trapped heat in Earth's atmosphere from man-made greenhouse gases. The current role of methane looms large, he says, contributing over 40 percent of current radiative forcing from all , based on the latest science from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The role of methane as a driver of is even more critical than this 40 percent value might indicate, Howarth notes. The climate system responds much more quickly to reducing methane than to carbon dioxide. If society aggressively controlled emissions, but ignored methane emissions, the planet would warm to the dangerous 1.5 to 2.0 degree Celsius threshold within 15 to 35 years. By reducing , society buys some critical decades of lower temperatures.

"Society needs to wean itself from the addiction to fossil fuels as quickly as possible," Howarth said. "But to replace some fossil fuels (coal, oil) with another (natural gas) will not suffice as an approach to take on global warming. Rather, we should embrace the technologies of the 21st century and convert our energy systems to ones that rely on wind, solar and water power."

In 2011, Anthony Ingraffea, Cornell's Dwight C. Baum Professor of Engineering; Renee Santoro, research technician in ecology and evolutionary biology; and Howarth published "Methane and the Greenhouse-Gas Footprint of Natural Gas from Shale Formations," in Climate Change Letters, where they explained that extracting from the Marcellus Shale will aggravate global warming more than mining and burning coal.

In this latest work, Howarth said that societies have run out of time and must pursue technological changes for sustainable energy now. "If we can control the methane, we have a chance to reverse course," he said.

Explore further: Study shows bacteria combat dangerous gas leaks

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Fracking leaks may make gas 'dirtier' than coal

Apr 12, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Extracting natural gas from the Marcellus Shale could do more to aggravate global warming than mining coal, according to a Cornell study published in the May issue of Climatic Change Letters (105:5).

Study shows bacteria combat dangerous gas leaks

Apr 28, 2014

Bacteria could mop up naturally-occurring and man-made leaks of natural gases before they are released into the atmosphere and cause global warming - according to new research from the University of East Anglia.

Recommended for you

Dead floppy drive: Kenya recycles global e-waste

22 hours ago

In an industrial area outside Kenya's capital city, workers in hard hats and white masks take shiny new power drills to computer parts. This assembly line is not assembling, though. It is dismantling some ...

New paper calls for more carbon capture and storage research

Aug 22, 2014

Federal efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions must involve increased investment in research and development of carbon capture and storage technologies, according to a new paper published by the University of Wyoming's ...

Coal gas boom in China holds climate change risks

Aug 22, 2014

Deep in the hilly grasslands of remote Inner Mongolia, twin smoke stacks rise more than 200 feet into the sky, their steam and sulfur billowing over herds of sheep and cattle. Both day and night, the rumble ...

User comments : 5

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Benni
2.3 / 5 (3) May 14, 2014
OK professor, you lead the way by example, stop burning methane to heat your house.
rwinners
3 / 5 (2) May 14, 2014
<<<"Society needs to wean itself from the addiction to fossil fuels as quickly as possible," Howarth said. "But to replace some fossil fuels (coal, oil) with another (natural gas) will not suffice as an approach to take on global warming. Rather, we should embrace the technologies of the 21st century and convert our energy systems to ones that rely on wind, solar and water power."

Read more at: http://phys.org/n...>>

There are more than 3 BILLION people around the planet who desperately want to live as we in the West do. Good luck to us!
bmessina
3 / 5 (4) May 14, 2014
Howarth is wrong again. He says

"Natural gas ... is a major source of atmospheric methane, due to widespread leaks as well as purposeful venting of gas."

According to the EPA 2014 Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions (http://epa.gov/cl...ary.pdf) Table ES-2, Recent Trends in U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks, the leading source of methane is enteric fermentation . . . that is, methane from cows.

Cows generate more methane than natural gas, even as natural gas production rises by leaps and bounds. Is Howarth promoting another "study" paid for the Park foundation?

Forbes says "Within the field, Howarth is considered an activist, not an independent scientist."
frankchugga
1 / 5 (1) May 15, 2014
With regard to his incessant rant on methane, Howarth has been totally discredited by Cornell Profs Dr. Larry Cathles, Larry Brown, and Andrew Hunter in this 17 page commentary - http://www.geo.co...arth.pdf Howarth is an embarrassment to Cornell and should retire ASAP.
frankchugga
1 / 5 (1) May 15, 2014
Howarth = clown - "Responsible development of natural gas is an important part of our work to curb climate change," said U.S. EPA administrator Gina McCarthy last August. McCarthy also said natural gas has been a "game changer with our ability to really move forward with pollution reductions that have been very hard to get our arms around for many decades."