, Volume 120, Issue 4, pp 903-914
Date: 21 Aug 2013

The danger of overvaluing methane’s influence on future climate change

Abstract

Minimizing the future impacts of climate change requires reducing the greenhouse gas (GHG) load in the atmosphere. Anthropogenic emissions include many types of GHG’s as well as particulates such as black carbon and sulfate aerosols, each of which has a different effect on the atmosphere, and a different atmospheric lifetime. Several recent studies have advocated for the importance of short timescales when comparing the climate impact of different climate pollutants, placing a high relative value on short-lived pollutants, such as methane (CH4) and black carbon (BC) versus carbon dioxide (CO2). These studies have generated confusion over how to value changes in temperature that occur over short versus long timescales. We show the temperature changes that result from exchanging CO2 for CH4 using a variety of commonly suggested metrics to illustrate the trade-offs involved in potential carbon trading mechanisms that place a high value on CH4 emissions. Reducing CH4 emissions today would lead to a climate cooling of approximately ~0.5 °C, but this value will not change greatly if we delay reducing CH4 emissions by years or decades. This is not true for CO2, for which the climate is influenced by cumulative emissions. Any delay in reducing CO2 emissions is likely to lead to higher cumulative emissions, and more warming. The exact warming resulting from this delay depends on the trajectory of future CO2 emissions but using one business-as usual-projection we estimate an increase of 3/4 °C for every 15-year delay in CO2 mitigation. Overvaluing the influence of CH4 emissions on climate could easily result in our “locking” the earth into a warmer temperature trajectory, one that is temporarily masked by the short-term cooling effects of the CH4 reductions, but then persists for many generations.