'Super-emitting' methane leaks may push us over climate change edge

1,000 "super-emitting" methane leaks might be all it takes to push the planet past climate change tipping points, according to a new report.
John Loeffler
An oil well with a visible flare behind a sand dune
An oil well with a visible flare behind a sand dune

35007 / iStock 

Depending on who you ask, 1,000 might not seem like that big a number, but just 1,055 "super-emitting" methane leaks around the world might be all that's needed to push the planet past the climate change brink.

In a new report in the Guardian, more than 1,000 methane leak events were observed in 2022, with 55 additional "methane bombs" identified that could push the planet past the 1.5-degree-Celsius-increase limit scientists say is necessary to forestall the worst consequences of climate change.

The 1,000-plus super-emitting methane leak sites are part of a larger trend that has seen the potent greenhouse gas surge over the past decade and a half, to the point where it accounts for 25% of global temperature rise. According to the report, the single worst methane leak in 2022 dumped carbon into the atmosphere at a rate equivalent to 67 million running cars.

About 40% of the methane leaks stemmed from oil and natural gas drilling, with some deliberate venting of gas from well sites but also unintentional leaking from poorly maintained mining equipment. Another 40% came from agriculture, with the remaining 20% coming from waste sites where trash produced methane as it rotted.

Of the 1,005 worst sites, 559 were from oil and natural gas sites, 105 were from coal mines, and 340 were from landfills or other waste sites. The worst methane leak occurred in Turkmenistan near the Caspian coast, where an event in 2022 produced 427 tons of methane an hour.

Why is methane so bad?

Methane is a significantly more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide — it can trap in as much as 80 times more heat than CO2 — though it is much shorter-lived in our atmosphere. Methane dissipates after about a decade in the atmosphere, whereas CO2 can linger for a century or longer.

Effectively, methane produces a lot more warming than carbon dioxide very quickly, which presents a serious challenge to meeting the 1.5-degree Celsius goal laid out in the Paris Agreement. But the challenge of methane leaks also provides an important opportunity, researchers say.

“The current rise in methane looks very scary indeed,” University of London professor Euan Nisbet told the Guardian. “Methane acceleration is perhaps the largest factor challenging our Paris agreement goals. So removing the super-emitters is a no-brainer to slow the rise – you get a lot of bang for your buck.”

“Methane emissions are still far too high, especially as methane cuts are among the cheapest options to limit near-term global warming,” said Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency. “There is just no excuse.”

Despite its short-lived nature, short-term heating caused by methane could trigger a number of climate change tipping points, like the melting of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, whose impacts will long outlive the methane that helped trigger them, so getting methane under control is especially important.

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