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Methane versus Carbon Dioxide: Mitigation Prospects

Authors: Alexander J. Severinsky, Allen L. Sessoms


Atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) has dominated the discussion around the causes of climate change. This is a reflection of a 100-year time horizon for all greenhouse gases that became a norm.  The 100-year time horizon is much too long – and yet, almost all mitigation efforts, including those set in the near-term frame of within 30 years, are still geared toward it. In this paper, we show that for a 30-year time horizon, methane (CH4) is the greenhouse gas whose radiative forcing exceeds that of CO2. In our analysis, we use the radiative forcing of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, because they directly affect the rise in temperature on Earth. We found that in 2019, the radiative forcing (RF) of methane was ~2.5 W/m2 and that of carbon dioxide was ~2.1 W/m2. Under a business-as-usual (BAU) scenario until 2050, such forcing would be ~2.8 W/m2 and ~3.1 W/m2 respectively. There is a substantial spread in the data for anthropogenic and natural methane (CH4) emissions, along with natural gas, (which is primarily CH4), leakages from industrial production to consumption. For this reason, we estimate the minimum and maximum effects of a reduction of these leakages, and assume an effective immediate reduction by 80%. Such action may serve to reduce the annual radiative forcing of all CH4 emissions by ~15% to ~30%. This translates into a reduction of RF by 2050 from ~2.8 W/m2 to ~2.5 W/m2 in the case of the minimum effect that can be expected, and to ~2.15 W/m2 in the case of the maximum effort to reduce methane leakages. Under the BAU, we find that the RF of CO2 will increase from ~2.1 W/m2 now to ~3.1 W/m2 by 2050. We assume a linear reduction of 50% in anthropogenic emission over the course of the next 30 years, which would reduce the radiative forcing of CO2 from ~3.1 W/m2 to ~2.9 W/m2. In the case of "net zero," the other 50% of only anthropogenic CO2 emissions reduction would be limited to being either from sources of emissions or directly from the atmosphere. In this instance, the total reduction would be from ~3.1 W/m2 to ~2.7 W/m2, or ~0.4 W/m2. To achieve the same radiative forcing as in the scenario of maximum reduction of methane leakages of ~2.15 W/m2, an additional reduction of radiative forcing of CO2 would be approximately 2.7 -2.15 = 0.55 W/m2. In total, one would need to remove ~660 GT of CO2 from the atmosphere in order to match the maximum reduction of current methane leakages, and ~270 GT of CO2 from emitting sources, to reach "negative emissions". This amounts to over 900 GT of CO2.

Keywords: Methane Leakages, Methane Radiative Forcing, Methane Mitigation, Methane Net Zero.

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