Methane matters

But surely not more then carbon dioxide?

Published: Wednesday 15 December 2004

-- vapid cure is better than prevention. That's the us' policy on global warming. The us has now devised a new strategy to deal with the second most prevalent greenhouse gas in the atmosphere -- methane. Like it did with carbon dioxide (co2), the basis of this strategy is not to reduce methane emissions, but to capture the gas so as to control its concentration in the atmosphere. For co2, the us' answer was the Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum, an initiative to undertake activities that capture co2 -- planting trees or conserving forests, mostly in poor developing countries. It has now launched the Methane to Markets Partnership, an initiative to capture the gas from landfills, coalmines and oil and gas operations to use it as fuel (see: South America unites).

This initiative is also a part of the us' strategy to undermine the Kyoto Protocol, the global treaty that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The us walked away from the treaty in 2001, promising not to return until countries like China and India also take on legally binding commitments on reducing their emissions. While the treaty requires industrialised countries to cut their emissions, the Methane to Markets Partnership and the Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum require no such reductions from participating countries. They are only required to employ technologies that capture the gas, and where possible use it. They are merely reactive, end-of-the-pipe solutions.

While the initiative in itself is not bad, it cannot be the only approach. Any strategy that finds alternative uses to greenhouse gases, such that their concentration in the atmosphere declines, is good. But it can at best serve as a complement to initiatives to reduce emissions, whether by limiting activities that add to these emissions or by employing technologies and processes that are more efficient.

At another level, the us' emphasis on reducing methane emissions is unjustified. The us may argue that methane is a more potent heat-trapping gas; the partnership would yield quick results in the short term. In reality, this emphasis only serves to deflect attention away from its co2 emissions. While the us is one of the leading emitters of methane, behind China, Russia and India, it is the leading emitter of co2, way ahead of the rest. But, while emissions in China and India result mainly from activities necessary for survival, a significant proportion of the us' emissions results from luxurious lifestyles. At 74 per cent of all greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, co2 is most prevalent. And as the leading culprit of its increasing concentration in the atmosphere, unless the us does something to curtail its emissions, anything else it does is a farce.

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