3rd February 2012. The global methane cycle held its breath on 1st December as some of the world’s leading experts on methane emissions and geo-engineering gathered at the Geological Society to discuss strategies for ‘hacking’ into the system and reducing the atmospheric concentration of this potent greenhouse gas.
The ‘Methane Hack’ discussion meeting, sponsored by MethaneNet, was organised by Vincent Gauci and Gail Riekie of the Open University.
Compared to carbon dioxide, the average methane molecule has a relatively short lifetime in the atmosphere and herein lies the opportunity. Speaker after speaker emphasised the point that reducing the amount of methane in the atmosphere represents a ‘quick hit’, a means of stabilising the climate in the near term whilst buying time to figure out how to solve the carbon dioxide problem – in effect, the climate crisis equivalent of applying a tourniquet until the surgeon arrives.
Ideas for mitigating methane emissions came thick and fast. Anthropogenic point sources of methane, e.g. coal mines, gas pipelines and landfill sites, were recognised to be easier to tackle than diffuse natural sources such as boreal and tropical wetlands. The theoretical basis of direct capture of methane from the atmosphere was presented, as were the practicalities of extracting methane from coal mine ventilation air and, perhaps more far-fetched, deploying sheeting on the Arctic sea-bed to gather up methane from seep areas. Science can suggest ways of minimising the methane emitted by cattle and from rice paddies, but these methods will be adopted only when they also make practical and economic sense to the farmers involved. Keynote speaker David Reay of the University of Edinburgh reviewed the microbial basis of the global methane flux and observed that for methane mitigation policies to be effective, “we need to understand humans as well as we understand methanogens.”
The meeting concluded with pleas for greater transparency in methane emissions projections, for more methane monitoring stations (particularly in the southern hemisphere), and above all for methane’s potentially pivotal role as a short-term climate fix to be more widely recognised by climate scientists and policy makers alike.
The chair of the meeting, Dr Vincent Gauci says “It’s clear from this meeting that there is enormous potential for quick climate gains from mitigating methane emissions – the ingenuity on display in these talks is impressive. The challenge now lies in introducing these strategies effectively and for that to happen, we need help from social scientists, economists and policy makers as well as the scientists and engineers who are coming up with the solutions.”