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Methane: Levels of the potent greenhouse gas are still on the rise - here's why that matters

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, and recent data shows its atmospheric concentration is still increasing.

The vast majority of Ireland's methane emissions come from the agriculture sector.
The vast majority of Ireland's methane emissions come from the agriculture sector.
Image: Shutterstock

THERE HAS BEEN a “worrying” increase in methane concentration in the atmosphere, a climate researcher has said about recent data on the powerful greenhouse gas.

Data from the EU this week showed that atmospheric methane concentration rose to an “unprecedented” level in 2021.

It said the growth in methane last year was slightly larger than in 2020, but that both rates are “very high” compared to the past two decades of data. 

Data from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also recently found that the concentration of methane in the atmosphere rose to more than 1900 parts per billion as of September 2021, the highest level seen since records began in the 1980s. 

This is a cause for concern, according to postdoctoral researcher at Maynooth University Dr Clare Noone. 

Ireland and more than 100 other countries signed up to a pledge last year to reduce methane emissions globally by 30% by the end of this decade.

Dr Noone said that the recent figures on atmospheric methane concentration “really points that we need action, and we need intervention, not just the pledges”.

“I think people used to think that climate change was something that would affect them in the future, something not to worry about at the moment,” Dr Noone told The Journal

But now you see that there’s extreme events, they’re happening and they’re the norm and climate change isn’t something that may or may not happen. It is actually something that is happening right now, and on our doorstep.

“This type of warming that we are seeing now matters, and that’s why methane matters.

“Because methane is a really powerful greenhouse gas, because it breaks down more quickly than carbon dioxide it can be cleared from the atmosphere quicker,” she said.

“That means that reducing methane could be the quickest way to reduce or slow down climate change.”

Methane is emitted during the production and transport of fossil fuels and in agriculture through livestock like cattle and sheep. More than 90% of Ireland’s methane emissions come from the agriculture sector. 

The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) outlined that rapid changes in emissions like methane can result in “rapid climate effects”. 

Reducing methane emissions can both reduce warming effects and adverse effects on air quality, IPCC documents outline

Dr Noone said that addressing methane must be “in addition to, not in place of” other climate measures, including significantly reducing carbon dioxide emissions. 

“It is completely worrying, and we do need more action, not just the pledges, and you do need to sustain the reduction in methane.” 

Methane is the second highest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in Ireland, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

It is a short-lived gas but has a global warming potential that is up to 34 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period, a UN commission has said.

Measured over the course of 20 years, that grows to more than 80 times more potent.

Ireland, methane and agriculture

The EPA estimated that Ireland’s methane emissions increased by 8.5% in 2020 compared to levels in 1990.

Methane emissions in Ireland actually decreased between 1998 and 2011 due to falling livestock numbers from reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy, the EPA said.

The vast majority of Ireland’s methane emissions come from agriculture, a sector that came under scrutiny at an Oireachtas Climate Committee meeting earlier this week. 

Emeritus professor at Maynooth University John Sweeney told the committee on Wednesday that Ireland needs a “commitment that we will reduce our national herd” and “that we will reduce our methane emissions by at least 3% per year on an ongoing basis”.

He said it was “imperative” that Ireland achieved a reduction in cattle numbers in the country.

Under the government’s Agri-Food Strategy, Ireland plans to reduce methane emissions by at least 10% by 2030. 

Postdoctoral researcher at Teagasc Paul Smith said that, from a farming perspective, “reducing methane isn’t going to be necessarily that simple”. 

“Methane has traditionally been labelled as the second most important greenhouse gas in terms of global warming compared to carbon dioxide,” Smith told The Journal.

Trying to reduce the global concentration of methane is going to be key for trying to reduce an increase in global temperatures.

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Smith is the lead author on a study that has developed a different approach to quantifying emissions in beef cattle.   

The study examined the relationship between methane emissions and animal productivity as, in general, the more feed an animal eats, the higher level of methane they produce. 

The study results found that some beef cattle can produce up to 30% less methane emissions for the same level of productivity, and further research is being done into this.

“So from an agricultural point of view, it’s a natural by-product of cattle and sheep digestion, but ultimately, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and in terms of global warming, it is obviously up there with one of the most potent greenhouse gases,” Smith said. 

The Irish Farmers’ Association told an Oireachtas Committee on Thursday that a 22% reduction in agricultural emissions by 2030 is “challenging” but “achievable”. 

IFA Deputy President Brian Rushe said that farmers “have a major role to play in reducing Ireland’s emissions and contributing to addressing the climate change challenge” and “are committed to playing their part and have already made significant investments to improve efficiency and reduce emissions”.

Experts have been critical of the lower 2030 emissions reduction target for the agriculture sector (22-30%) in the Climate Action Plan compared to other sectors which will require much higher reductions over the next eight years.

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