Population and Environment

, Volume 16, Issue 2, pp 109–137 | Cite as

The greenhouse gas methane (CH4): Sources and sinks, the impact of population growth, possible interventions

  • Gerhard K. Heilig


Methane (CH4) is one of the trace gases in the atmosphere that is considered to play a major role in what is called the “greenhouse effect.” There are six major sources of atmospheric methane: emission from anaerobic decomposition in (1) natural wetlands; (2) paddy rice fields; (3) emission from livestock production systems (including intrinsic fermentation and animal waste); (4) biomass burning (including forest fires, charcoal combustion, and firewood burning); (5) anaerobic decomposition of organic waste in landfills; and (6) fossil methane emission during the exploration and transport of fossil fuels. Obviously, human activities play a major role in increasing methane emissions from most of these sources. Especially the worldwide expansion of paddy rice cultivation, livestock production and fossil fuel exploration have increased the methane concentration in the atmosphere. Several data sets help estimate atmospheric methane concentration up to 160,000 years back. Major sources and sinks of present-day methane emission and their relative contribution to the global methane balance demonstrate great uncertainties in the identification and quantification of individual sources and sinks. Most recent methane projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for 2025 and 2100 are discussed and used to estimate the contribution of population growth to future methane emission. Finally the paper discusses options and restrictions of reducing anthropogenic methane emissions to the atmosphere.


Methane Emission Paddy Rice Methane Concentration Paddy Rice Field Atmospheric Methane 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Alexandratos, N. (Ed.). (1988).World agriculture: Toward 2000. An FAO Study. London: Belhaven Press.Google Scholar
  2. Andreae, M.O. (1991). Biomass burning in the tropics: Impact on environmental quality and global climate change. In K. Davis and M.S. Bernstam (Eds.).Resources, environment, and population: Present knowledge, future options, pp. 268–291. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Aselmann, I. & Crutzen, P.J. (1989). Global distribution of natural freshwater wetlands and rice paddies: their net primary productivity, seasonality and possible methane emissions.Journal of Atmospheric Chemistry, 8, 307–358.Google Scholar
  4. Baker-Blocker, A., Donohue, T.M., & Mancy, K.H. (1977). Methane flux from wetland areas.Tellus, 29, 245–250.Google Scholar
  5. Barnola, J.M., Raynaud, D., Korotkevich, Y.S., & Lorius, C. (1987). Vostok ice core provides 160,000-year record of atmospheric CO2.Nature, 329, 408–414.Google Scholar
  6. Bingemer, H.G. & Crutzen, P.J. (1987). The production of methane from solid wastes.Journal of Geophysical Research, 92, 2181–2187.Google Scholar
  7. Boden, T.A., Sepanski, R.J., & Stoss, R.W. (Eds.). (1991).Trends '91. A compendium of data on global change. Oak Ridge, Tennessee: Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory.Google Scholar
  8. Boden, T.A., Kanciruk, P., & Farrell, M.P. (1990).Trends '90. A compendium of data on global change. ORNL/CDIAC-36. Oak Ridge, Tennessee: Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory.Google Scholar
  9. Cicerone, R.J. & Oremland, R.S. (1988). Biogeochemical aspects of atmospheric methane.Global Biogeochemical Cycles, 2(4), 299–327.Google Scholar
  10. Conrad, R. & Rothfuss, F. (1991). Methane oxidation in the soil surface layer of a flooded rice field and the effect of ammonium.Biology and Fertility of Soils, 12, 28–32.Google Scholar
  11. Crutzen, P.J., Aselmann, I., & Seiler, W. (1986). Methane production by domestic animals, wild ruminants, other herbivorous fauna, and humans.Tellus, 38B, 271–284.Google Scholar
  12. Dansgaard, W., Clausen, H.B., Gundestrup, N., Hammer, C.U., Johnson, S.F., Kristinsdottir, P.M., & Reeh, N. (1982). A new Greenland deep ice core.Science, 218, 1273–1277.Google Scholar
  13. Delmas, R.A., Marenco, A., Tathy, J.P., Cros, B., & Baudet, J.G.R. (1991). Sources and sinks of methane in the African savanna. CH4 emissions from biomass burning.Journal of Geophysical Research, 96(D4), 7287–7299.Google Scholar
  14. FAO (1991a).Second interim report on the state of tropical forests. 10th World Forestry Congress, Paris. Rome: Food and Agricultural Organization.Google Scholar
  15. FAO (1991b).Forest resources assessment 1990 project. Forestry N. 7. Rome: Food and Agricultural Organization.Google Scholar
  16. FAO (1991c). PC-AGROSTATT data base. Rome: Food and Agricultural Organization.Google Scholar
  17. FAO (1992). PC-AGROSTATT data base, Version 2. Rome: Food and Agricultural Organization.Google Scholar
  18. Hansen, J.E., Lacis, A.A., & Ruedy, R.A. (1990). Comparison of solar and other influences on long-term climate. In K.H. Schatten and A. Arking (Eds.).Climate impact of solar variability; Proceedings of a conference, Volume 3086. Greenbelt, MD: Goddard Space Flight Center.Google Scholar
  19. Hao, Wei-Min, Liu, Mey-Huey, & Crutzen, P.J. (1990). Estimates of annual and regional releases of CO2 and other trace gases to the atmosphere from fires in the tropics, based on FAO statistics for the period 1975–1980. In J.G. Goldammer (Ed.).Fire in the tropical biota: Ecosystem, processes and global challenges, pp. 440–462. Berlin: Springer Verlag.Google Scholar
  20. Hogan, K.B., Hoffman, J.S., & Thompson, M. (1991). Methane on the greenhouse agenda.Nature, 354, 181–182.Google Scholar
  21. Houghton, J.T., Callander, B.A., & Varney, S.K. (Eds.). (1992).Climate change 1992. The Supplementary Report to the IPCC Scientific Assessment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  22. Houghton, J.T., Jenkins, G.J., & Ephraums, J.J. (Eds.). (1990).Climate change: The IPCC scientific assessment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  23. Howard-Williams, C. & Thompson, K. (1985). The conservation and management of African wetlands. In P. Denny (Ed.).The ecology and management of African wetland vegetation, pp. 203–210. Dordrecht: Dr. W. Junk Publisher.Google Scholar
  24. Khalil, M.A.K., Rasmussen, R.A., Wang, Ming-Xing, & Ren, Lixin (1991). Methane emissions from rice fields in China.Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, 25(5), 979–981.Google Scholar
  25. Khalil, M.A.K., Rasmussen, R.A., French, J.R.J., & Holt, J.A. (1990). The influence of termites on atmospheric trace gases: CH4, CO2, CHCl3, N2O, CO, H2 and light hydrocarbons,Journal of Geophysical Research, 95D, 3619–3634.Google Scholar
  26. Khalil, M.A.K. & Rasmussen, R.A. (1982). Secular trends of atmospheric methane (CH4).Chemosphere, 11, 877–883.Google Scholar
  27. Lerner, J., Matthews, E., & Fung, I. (1988). Methane emission from animals: a global high-resolution data base.Global Biogeochemical Cycles, 2(2), 139–156.Google Scholar
  28. Lindau, C.W., DeLaune, R.D., Patrick, W.H., & Bollich, P.K. (1990). Fertilizer effects on dinitrogen, nitrous oxide, and methane emissions from lowland rice.Soil Science Society of America lournal, 54(6), 1789–1794.Google Scholar
  29. MacDonald, G.J. (1989). The near- and far-term technologies, uses, and future of natural gas. InOECD, International Energy Agency: Energy technologies for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, pp. 509–535. Proceedings of an Expert's Seminar, Paris, 12–14 April 1989. Paris: OECD.Google Scholar
  30. Malingreau, J.-P. & Tucker, C.J. (1988). Large-scale deforestation in the southeastern Amazon Basin of Brazil.Ambio, 17, 49–55.Google Scholar
  31. Manibog, F.R. (1984). Improved cooking stoves in developing countries.Annual Review of Energy, 9,199–227.Google Scholar
  32. Matthews, E., Fung, I., & Lerner, J. (1991). Methane emissions from rice cultivation: geographic and seasonal distribution of cultivated areas and emissions.Global Biogeochemical Cycles, 5(1), 3–24.Google Scholar
  33. Matthews, E. & Fung, I. (1987). Methane emission from natural wetlands: global distribution, area and environmental characteristics of sources.Global Biogeochemical Cycles, 1, 61–86.Google Scholar
  34. Mitchell, J.F.B. (1989). The “greenhouse” effect and climate change.Reviews of Geophysics, 27(1), 115–139.Google Scholar
  35. Neftel, A., Moor, E., Oeschger, H., & Stauffer, B. (1985). Evidence from polar ice cores for the increase in atmospheric CO2 in the past two centuries.Nature, 315, 45–47.Google Scholar
  36. Neftel, A., Oeschger, H., Schwander, J., Stauffer, B., & Zumbrunn, R. (1982). Ice core measurements give atmospheric CO2 content during the past 40,000 years.Nature, 295, 220–223.Google Scholar
  37. Nordhaus, W. (July 7, 1990). Greenhouse economics, count before you leap.The Economist, pp. 19–22.Google Scholar
  38. Quay, P.D., King, S.L., Stutsman, J., Wilbur, D.O., Steele, L.P., Fung, I., Gammon, R.H., Brown, T.A., Farwell, G.W., Grootes, P.M., & Schmidt, F.H. (1991). Carbon isotopic composition of atmospheric CH4: fossil and biomass burning source strengths.Global Biogeochemical Cycles, 5(1), 25–47.Google Scholar
  39. Raynaud, D., Chappellaz, J., Barnola, J.M., Korotkevich, Y.S., & Lorius, C. (1988). Climatic and CH4 cycle implications of glacial-interglacial CH4 change in the Vostok ice core.Nature, 333, 655–657.Google Scholar
  40. Rosswall, T. (1991). Greenhouse gases and global change: International collaboration,Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, 25(4), 567–583.Google Scholar
  41. Seiler, W. (1984). Contribution of biological processes to the global budget of CH4 in the atmosphere. In M.J. Klug and C.A. Reddy (Eds.).Current Perspectives in Microbial Ecology, pp. 468-ff. Washington, D.C.: American Society for Microbiology.Google Scholar
  42. Sloan, D.E. (December 1991). Natural gas hydrates.Journal of Petroleum Technology, pp. 1414–1417.Google Scholar
  43. Smil, V. (1987).Energy, food, environment. Realities, myths, opinions. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  44. Stauffer, B., Lochbronner, E., Oeschger, H., & Schwander, J. (1988). Methane concentration in the glacial atmosphere was only half that of the preindustrial Holocene.Nature, 332, 812–814.Google Scholar
  45. Stockholm Environment Institute (1991). G2S2 (Greenhouse Gas Scenario System). Boston office. Stockholm: International Institute for Environmental Technology and Management.Google Scholar
  46. UN (1991).World population prospects 1990. New York: United Nations.Google Scholar
  47. Yavitt, J.B. (1992). Methane, biogeochemical cycle. In W.A. Nierenberg (Ed.).Encyclopedia of Earth systems science, Volume 3, pp. 197–207. San Diego: Academic Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Human Sciences Press, Inc. 1994

Authors and Affiliations

  • Gerhard K. Heilig
    • 1
  1. 1.International Institute for Applied Systems AnalysisAustria

Personalised recommendations