Science - June 5, 2012

Co2? Do something about methane too.

We could cut methane emissions radically, and this would be a relatively straightforward way of putting the brakes on climate change. This is Andre van Amstel’s conclusion in the PhD thesis he defended on 30 May.

Methane gas that now leaks into the atmosphere could be put to good use instead.
Mining and oil drilling cause unnecessary leaks of methane into the atmosphere. And methane is a potent greenhouse gas. As capturing it is relatively straightforward, we could reduce methane emissions and with it global warming. 'For one thing, it is not very expensive', says Andre van Amstel, researcher at Environmental Systems Analysis. 'Because you can seel methane gas as fuel' Methane also disappears from the atmosphere after about 12 years. Fewer emissions therefore lead to lower concentrations and less impact in the short term.
 What is more, there are already various systems for capturing and selling methane available. In mines, for example, you can extract gas before the miners start mining a layer of rock. And in oil-drilling, of which methane is a by-product, there are opportunities too. 'Take Nigeria, where they currently blow up or flare the gas', says Van Amstel. Emissions from rubbish dumps and rice fields can also be significantly reduced.
 Van Amstel is optimistic that his thesis will lead to action during the coming climate negotiations. 'You can halve emissions. And make a profit while you are at it. Governments must remove the barriers for investors and exchange international technology.' But not all the lights are green. Van Amstel is afraid that unnecessarily large amounts of gas will be allowed to escape during future gas explorations around the North Pole.
 Moreover we do not have methods of reducing emissions for every source of methane. Wetlands, for instance, emit methane and human beings have very little influence on this. 'Cows also emit a lot of methane, from both ends', says Van Amstel. Research is being done on how this could be reduced, but there is not much interest in applying it. 'And meanwhile our western patterns of consumption are being adopted in China so livestock herds are growing, and emissions with them.'