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Flames rise from a flaring pit near a well in the Bakken Oil Field. The primary component of natural gas is methane, which is odorless when it comes directly out of the gas well. (Photo: Orjan F. Ellingvag/Corbis via Getty Images)

Flames rise from a flaring pit near a well in the Bakken Oil Field. The primary component of natural gas is methane, which is odorless when it comes directly out of the gas well. (Photo: Orjan F. Ellingvag/Corbis via Getty Images)

NOAA Says Atmospheric Methane Levels Set New Record in 2021

"Our data show that global emissions continue to move in the wrong direction at a rapid pace. The evidence is consistent, alarming, and undeniable."

Brett Wilkins

Climate scientists on Thursday stressed the need for urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions following new data showing a record increase in atmospheric methane levels for a second consecutive year.

"We need to aggressively reduce fossil fuel pollution to zero as soon as possible if we want to avoid the worst impacts from a changing climate."

"Our data show that global emissions continue to move in the wrong direction at a rapid pace," National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Administrator Rick Spinrad said in a statement. "The evidence is consistent, alarming, and undeniable."

As NOAA notes, carbon dioxide remains the biggest climate change threat. However, scientists say that reducing methane emissions—the largest anthropogenic sources of which are animal agriculture and energy production—is relatively easy.

Spinrad said that "reducing methane emissions is an important tool we can use right now to lessen the impacts of climate change in the near term, and rapidly reduce the rate of warming. Let's not forget that methane also contributes to ground-level ozone formation, which causes roughly 500,000 premature deaths each year around the world."

Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity's Climate Law Institute, said that "this report is especially alarming because if carbon dioxide is the fossil-fueled broiler of our heating planet, methane is a blow torch, with 87 times more short-term heating power. Yet despite methane reductions being a relatively cheap and easy way to get phenomenal climate benefits, the industry has fought regulations at every turn."

"Polluters' record profits must be used to properly seal and remediate every well and fix every methane leak," she added. "But methane reductions have to be one part of a transformative global effort to phase out deadly fossil fuels in favor of truly clean renewable energy. Anything less puts us on a catastrophic path to an unrecognizable world."

According to NOAA:

Preliminary analysis showed the annual increase in atmospheric methane during 2021 was 17 parts per billion (ppb), the largest annual increase recorded since systematic measurements began in 1983. The increase during 2020 was 15.3 ppb. Atmospheric methane levels averaged 1,895.7 ppb during 2021, or around 162% greater than pre-industrial levels. From NOAA's observations, scientists estimate global methane emissions in 2021 are 15% higher than the 1984-2006 period.

Meanwhile, levels of carbon dioxide also continue to increase at historically high rates. The global surface average for carbon dioxide during 2021 was 414.7 parts per million (ppm), which is an increase of 2.66 ppm over the 2020 average. This marks the 10th consecutive year that carbon dioxide increased by more than two parts per million, which represents the fastest sustained rate of increase in the 63 years since monitoring began.

Scientists fear soaring concentrations of methane—which is up to 87 times more potent than CO2 over a 20-year period—may have triggered a potentially irreversible climate feedback loop.

Last September, the European Union and the United States pledged to voluntarily reduce methane emissions 30% from 2020 levels by the end of the decade. More than 100 nations have signed on to their Global Methane Pledge.

The world's three leading methane emitters—China, Russia, and India—have not joined the effort, nor have other major methane polluters like Australia and Iran.

Critics call the 30% target a step in the right direction but insufficient to adequately address the emissions crisis. The International Energy Agency said last October that a 75% reduction in methane emissions by 2030 is "essential" to combating the climate emergency.

Other U.S. efforts to slash methane emissions have been hampered by opposition from the fossil fuel industry and the politicians it influences through campaign contributions. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), whose family owns a coal brokerage and who is currently by far the largest recipient of oil and gas industry contributions, has been a staunch opponent of a proposed fee on methane pollution.

NOAA's methane report comes days after the United Nations published its latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, whose findings U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called "a file of shame, cataloging the empty pledges that put us firmly on track towards an unlivable world."

NOAA's Spinrad stressed that "we can no longer afford to delay urgent and effective action needed to address the cause of the problem—greenhouse gas pollution."

Xin Lan, a scientist at NOAA's Global Monitoring Laboratory, said that "we need to aggressively reduce fossil fuel pollution to zero as soon as possible if we want to avoid the worst impacts from a changing climate."


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