Thursday, January 7, 2010

Methane and Global Warming

During the Copenhagen meeting almost unnoticed Robert Watson, the former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Mohamed El-Ashry, a senior fellow at the United Nations Foundation along with a group from the scientific and financial communities proposed the creation of a Global Methane Fund. According to this group, targeting methane reduction would be a cost effective and results oriented way to prevent global warming. Methane, one of the "other greenhouse gases," is reportedly responsible for 75% as much warming as carbon dioxide measured over any given 20 years. Unlike carbon dioxide, which remains in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, methane lasts only a decade so reductions in methane release will see climate results within a decade as the total methane in the atmosphere is reduced. According to NOAA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations, CH4 which absorbs 25 times the heat of CO2 is present in the atmosphere at 1/50 the level of CO2 at 1.8 ppm. Methane levels in the atmosphere have risen for the first time since 1998. This increase was attributed to changes in the permafrost stores of methane.

According to this group if we need to suppress temperature quickly in order to preserve glaciers, reducing methane can make an immediate impact. Compared to the massive requirements necessary to reduce CO2, cutting methane requires only modest investment. This group argues that where they stop methane emissions, cooling follows within a decade, not centuries. Methane amelioration would require non-point source regulation and activity. Methane (CH4) is emitted from a variety of both human-related and natural sources. Methane comes from a variety of sources: landfills, sewage streams, coal mines, oil and gas drilling operations, agricultural wastes, and cattle farms. In the United States, the largest methane emissions come from the decomposition of wastes in landfills, enteric fermentation in ruminant digestion and manure management associated with domestic livestock, natural gas and oil systems, and coal mining. Enteric fermentation occurs when methane (CH4) is produced in the rumen as microbial fermentation takes place. Most of the CH4 byproduct is belched by the animal; however, a small percentage of CH4 is also produced in the large intestine and passed out as gas.

According to the US EPA the largest emitters of Methane in the United States in 2007 was enteric fermentation. I kid you not, belching and (please excuse me) farting animals.

U.S. Methane Emissions by Source (TgCO2 Equivalents)

Source Category 2007
Enteric Fermentation 139.0
Landfills 132.9
Natural Gas Systems 104.7
Coal Mining 57.6
Manure Management 44.0

The Global Methane Fund, does not address the release of methane from the permafrost. In an Opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal Mr. Watson and Mr. Mohamed El-Ashry state “experience has shown that even with modest incentives, methane projects, which are typically small scale, can move fast.” These two gentlemen suggest the creation of a global fund. It won’t work. Methane results from human, animal and plant waste. Landfills are prodigious methane generators and because they are a point source can easily be harvested to produce biogas electricity. The release of methane from the permafrost is not even considered. Though the model for causation is not worked out nor proven, it is argued that un-combusted methane released into the atmosphere is a powerful greenhouse gas and 10% of our nation's impact on the climate comes from the food refuse that ends up decomposing under landfill, and another 10% comes from the gaseous releases of enteric fermentation.

In a New York Times article by Leslie Kaufman, “Greening the Herds: A New Diet to Cap Gas.” Cow that had their grain feed adjusted to include more plants like alfalfa and flaxseed and less corn produce less methane. This feed is more like the natural grasses that the cows evolved eating. The methane output dropped 18-30% depending on the original feed mix while milk production remained stable. In addition to producing less methane, the cows were observed to be healthier. This study evolved out of research performed by the makers of Danon yogurt in France. Scientists working with Groupe Danone had been studying why their cows were healthier and produced more milk in the spring. The answer, the scientists determined, was that spring grasses are high in Omega-3 fatty acids, which may help the cow’s digestive tract operate smoothly.
Corn and soy, the feed that became dominant feed in the agro-industrial dairy industry, has a completely different type of fatty acid structure. As was carefully chronicled in Michael Pollan’s book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” during the past 40 years, our agricultural economy as orchestrated by the Department of Agriculture has created a system of fattening cows using an unnatural feed, corn and soy. Cows are healthier and belch less methane if they are feed a diet similar to one they evolved to eat. This should not be surprising and is a small example of unintended consequences of man trying to bend the earth to our will. Our tools to impact and change remain far more powerful than our wisdom to know the right course of action to take with them. We would be far better off if we could restrain ourselves from wide sweeping actions and $100 billion global investment funds and dip our toes in first to see the results. Try to develop wisdom before we try to manage the natural cycles of the earth, and instead follow the earth’s lead. Concentrate our global funds on teaching sustainable farming, sanitation, and providing fresh water .

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