Sunday, February 3, 2008

Burps, Flatulence and A Killer Warming Gas.

"Methane concentrations have increased about 150 percent in the air since 1750 and now far exceed the natural range of the past 650,000 years. And human activities are largely to blame." - United Nation IPPC

While much have been written about the contribution of carbon dioxide - released from the unbridled burning of fossils fuels and deforestation - to global warming, there is another greenhouse gas, much more potent and efficient in trapping atmospheric heat than carbon dioxide, that gets far less public attention in our efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change : Methane.

With a warming potential that is 23 times more than carbon dioxide, Methane is responsible for nearly as much global warming as all other non-carbon dioxide greenhouse gases put together. Once emitted, it lasts about ten years in our atmosphere before further oxidizing into carbon dioxide and water. According to climate scientist Dr.Paul Fraser of Australia, a fifth of all greenhouse gas-induced global warming has been due to methane since pre-industrial time and it is the second-largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions worldwide after carbon dioxide.

Methane is produced from a number of sources, mainly from human activities, like landfills, coal mining and forest fires but the number one source worldwide is animal agriculture.

Animal farming produces more than 100 million tons of methane every year with about 85 per cent of this produced in the digestive traits of livestock like cows, sheep and goats. A byproduct of digestion, cattle and other livestock animals produce methane when organisms in their stomachs break down the fiber in the grasses and grains that they eat, and through their belching and flatulence, emit methane and nitrous oxide, another potent greenhouse gas, into our atmosphere.

It is estimated that a single cow produces between 80 to 110 kilograms of methane a day and considering the hundreds of millions of livestock animals worldwide, the amount of methane produced is enormous.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, cattle emit about 5.5 million tons of methane every year in the United States alone, while in New Zealand, emissions from animal farming constituted about half of all greenhouse gas emissions from that country. Behaving like gas factories, livestock animals are responsible for about 18 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Besides the methane produced, animal agriculture is also a major contributor to serious environmental degradations like water pollution, from the collection of livestock waste, and deforestation - where forests are cleared for livestock farming - which had led to widespread loss in biodiversity of species in recent years. And as living standards rise in the developing world, the situation is expected to deteriorate with sharp increases in methane emissions as the demand for meat and dairy products rises.

With so much of the world's focus on reduction of carbon dioxide emissions - from capping emissions from power plants to investing in alternative energy resources - to mitigate the effects of climate change, we are overlooking the contribution of non-carbon dioxide gas emissions like methane to the rise in global temperatures.

Data published by Dr. James Hansen, Director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies have actually indicated that non-carbon dioxide greenhouse gases like methane are responsible for as much global warming as carbon dioxide, if not more. By focusing solely on carbon dioxide reduction, governments and environmental organizations are actually neglecting other sources of greenhouse gas emissions and alternative strategies for reducing global temperatures.

Unlike carbon dioxide, which can remain in the atmosphere for more than a century, methane cycles out of the atmosphere in about ten years, so lowering methane emissions can quickly translate to cooling of the earth. Similarly, unlike the efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions which can have devastating impact on economies, especially of developing countries, reduction in methane gas emissions is much easier to achieve.
From the introduction of additives like enzyme inhibitors, to block the production of methane in the rumen of livestock, and supplementing the animals' diet with amino acids like cycteine, which reduces the amount of methane produced, to better agricultural practices to the straight forward capture of methane from landfills and coal mines to burn for power, reduction in methane gas emissions is a much more cheaper, attainable and feasible target than carbon dioxide reduction.

And like all the environmental issues facing mankind in recent years, it is again at the individual level that the greatest reduction in methane gas emissions will come from. Just by eating less meat or better still, adopting a vegetarian diet, will lead to lesser demand and not only will it reduce methane gas emissions from animal agriculture, it will also result in a cleaner environment and a healthier you.

*Sources :
- Earth Save
- Live Science Daily
- World Wildlife Federation
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
- NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies
- U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

*Related posts :
- Man and The Loss Of Biodiversity
- The Convenient But Deadly Plastic Bag
- A Planet In Peril

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Book Calendar said...

Hmm, I heard somewhere that you can reduce the amount of flatulence in cattle by changing their feed to make them less gassy. Also, you can capture the gas and burn it to produce power.

My Den said...

Hi Book Calender,
Yes, you are right and like what i have written, methane from livestock can be easily reduced through the introduction of additives like enzyme inhibitors - to block the production of methane in the rumen of livestock, and supplementing the animals' diet with amino acids like cycteine, which reduces the amount of methane produced. The technology for methane capture from coal mines and power plants are already available and easily adopted.

The problem lies with the over-focus on carbon dioxide reduction by governments and environmental organizations when reduction in methane is so much easier and can result in almost instant lowering of global temperatures.

As usual, the resistance of adopting measures to reduce methane from livestock is one of increase costs with the most resistance coming from the agriculture industry.

Thanks for dropping by and it have been a pleasure reading your book blog. Regards.