Methane from wetlands and other climate action mysteries

Methane from wetlands and other climate action mysteries

Livestock are in the penny place for emissions compared to this deforestation in Indonesia for steam injection extraction of heavy oil: one of the most carbon-intensive ways of drilling for oil.

Are farmers with ruminant livestock too easy a target for measures to combat global warming?

Even though eminent scientists say emissions of greenhouse gases from livestock are greatly overestimated by the people pulling the climate action strings, is it just that other polluters are too big and powerful to take on, so farmers get it in the neck?

That might explain why meat has become such a bad word, and leaders want us to become vegetarians.

Meat and farmers are easier to dump on than the governments in Asia, Africa and Latin America, who have been flattening forests at an alarming rate across Asia, Africa and Latin America during the coronavirus pandemic.

The rate of forest loss has increased 77%, as recession economies push exploitation of their resources, with environmental law enforcement sidelined, as natives turn to logging for income in the tropical world.

The statistics come from Global Land Analysis and Discovery (GLAD) in the University of Maryland, USA, and are based on satellite detection of tree cover loss. 

A sharp increase was seen in deforestation in Africa and Asia in the first six months of the year, particularly in April and May. 

Data collected by a government agency in Brazil from August 2019 to July 2020 shows an almost 35% rise in forest clearing, with an area the size of Cyprus cleared by loggers, miners, and ranchers. 

In Indonesia, clearing of forest land jumped 50% in the first 20 weeks of 2020, according to GLAD and Greenpeace data.

Deforestation releases large stores of carbon dioxide into the air, thus warming the atmosphere. 

Global loss of tropical forests contributed 8-10% of annual human emissions of carbon dioxide in recent years.

If tropical deforestation were a country, it would rank third in carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions, only behind China and the United States of America.

But it’s not the No 1 global warming culprit, fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation hold that position.

So it is frustrating not alone for environmentalists but also farmers, that the Trump administration in the US has given their oil and gas industry a green light to keep leaking enormous amounts of methane climate pollution into the air.

Huge amounts of methane, the chief component of natural gas, escape from oil wells, gas pipelines, and coalmines.

Huge plumes of methane escaping at least 790 times last year have been detected by new satellite-based technology. 

Shale gas development in North America has caused a surge in methane emissions.

The Obama administration had moved to curb oil and gas methane emissions, and President Trump’s backtrack could be swiftly reversed if Joe Biden wins the November presidential election, and Democrats win control of the Senate.

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden. Picture: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden. Picture: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Methane emissions are the second-largest cause of global warming, after carbon dioxide (but methane has a much shorter lifetime in the atmosphere).

Measurements in the US indicate that 39% comes from the fossil fuel industry; 36% from ruminants such as cattle, sheep and goats; 18% from landfills; and 8% from other sources.

But it’s really only the ruminant livestock source that is being tackled, even though this source is part of nature, in the biogenic cycle that took carbon from the air in the form of growing vegetation and emitted it as methane, since the first ruminants roamed the earth.

Farmers are being targeted hard even though it is clear that methane emissions are a major area of scientific uncertainty.

Why target farmers when it is in fact wetlands that produce 25–40% of global methane emissions, as measured by the United States Geological Survey (USGS). 

So, if you are a livestock farmer under pressure to reduce methane emissions from your herd, you might wonder why the new Government is excited about increasing the area of wetland habitats in Ireland.

Wetlands play a vital role in mitigating climate change effects, recognised in the 2019 Climate Action Plan, said previous Climate minister Richard Bruton. 

However, new findings indicate their vital role may actually be to emit extra methane.

USGS scientists say the concentration of methane in the atmosphere today is about 2.5 times higher than in 1750. 

But, “uncertainties in global methane sources and sinks are higher than those for carbon dioxide, and uncertainties from natural sources exceed those from anthropogenic emissions”, says the USGS. 

In particular, the largest source of uncertainty is emissions from wetlands and inland waters.

This is confirmed by the Joint Research Centre, the EU Commission’s science and knowledge service.

It says the water-drenched soils and low levels of oxygen of wetlands are breeding grounds for micro-organisms that produce methane.

By the end of this century, natural methane emissions from wetlands are projected to increase as much as 80%, compared with the beginning of the century, if no concrete actions are taken to reduce manmade emissions, says the JRC.

Rising temperatures, higher water tables, and the emergence of new wetlands due to the thawing of permafrost all contribute to swamps, marshes and bogs releasing more methane into the atmosphere.

It’s a chicken and egg situation, with accelerated methane emissions from natural wetlands expected if global warming is not kept under two degrees Centigrade.

But why increase wetlands, if this danger exists (even if it is a more likely phenomenon in tropical areas)? 

Are cattle being rid of to create methane leeway from wetlands where the biodiversity can be enjoyed by environmentalists?

It’s hard to resist such crackpot theories, when it seems that methane from cattle is bad, it’s not so bad from the fossil fuel industry, and it’s good from wetlands.

It’s also hard to blame the government if their climate action planning seems vague, when you consider the mysteries of, for example, methane from wetlands.

Nevertheless, the Supreme Court unanimously quashed the 2017 National Mitigation Plan on the basis that it does not provide enough detail about how the State will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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