If you’ve followed discussions about global warming, you’ve probably come across statements like: “Methane is 27 times more potent than CO2” or “Methane is 84 times more potent than CO2.” Perhaps you’ve actually heard both assertions and questioned why these figures vary. Is one number inaccurate, propagated by those who would sensationalize or downplay the global warming narrative?

Bryan Staley, President

June 19, 2023

5 Min Read
methane
NicoElNino / Alamy Stock Photo

If you’ve followed discussions about global warming, you’ve probably come across statements like: “Methane is 27 times more potent than CO2” or “Methane is 84 times more potent than CO2.” Perhaps you’ve actually heard both assertions and questioned why these figures vary. Is one number inaccurate, propagated by those who would sensationalize or downplay the global warming narrative? Could it be misinformation spun by a government conspiracy? Or might it simply be a discrepancy between differing scientific sources? These questions are certainly worth pondering.

While any of these, if true, would make for interesting reading, the scientific facts behind these numbers are also quite interesting and worth acknowledging, particularly given it’s hard to get through a week these days without hearing something about global warming or climate change.

Methane (CH4) has a higher heat-trapping potential than carbon dioxide (CO2) due to its molecular structure and properties. Some reasons include:

1.         Absorption Spectrum: Methane absorbs and emits infrared radiation in a different wavelength range compared to CO2. This means that methane can absorb and trap heat that would otherwise escape the Earth’s atmosphere more effectively, contributing to the greenhouse effect.

2.         Molecular Structure: Methane has a more complex and active molecular structure compared to CO2. It contains more powerful carbon-hydrogen (C-H) bonds, which are prone to vibrational and rotational modes that enable the absorption and emission of infrared radiation. These modes make methane a potent greenhouse gas.

3.         Radiative Efficiency: Methane has a higher radiative efficiency than CO2. Radiative efficiency refers to the ability of a greenhouse gas to trap heat per unit of concentration. Methane’s radiative efficiency is higher due to its absorption characteristics and the specific energy levels associated with its molecular vibrations.

4.         Atmospheric Lifetime: While methane has a shorter atmospheric lifetime compared to CO2, it is more effective at trapping heat during its presence. Over a given timescale, methane has a more intense warming effect before it breaks down into other substances, whereas CO2 remains in the atmosphere for much longer but has a lower instantaneous warming potential.

Methane’s half-life in the atmosphere is roughly 9 years, which means that of the methane emitted this year, only half of it will remain in the atmosphere 9 years from now, and only 25% would remain after 18 years. It’s important to note that although methane is more potent in terms of its heat-trapping capability, CO2 is still the primary driver of long-term climate change due to its significantly higher concentration and longer atmospheric lifetime. Both gases play crucial roles in the Earth’s climate system and require attention in efforts to mitigate global warming.

The different timeframes associated with methane’s global warming potential (GWP) represent how its warming effect is measured and compared to carbon dioxide (CO2) over specific time periods. Therefore, methane’s GWP refers to the relative warming effect of a given amount of methane compared to an equivalent amount of CO2 over a specific timeframe. The choice of timeframe is based on scientific assessments and policy considerations.

The 20-year GWP emphasizes the short-term impact of methane emissions. Methane has a higher warming potential compared to CO2 over this shorter timeframe, meaning it has a more immediate impact on global warming. This is important when addressing the urgency of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the near term. However, the potency of methane compared to CO2 varies depending on the timescale considered. Commonly used GWP values for this comparison over different timeframes are shown in the table below.

 

Timeframe (years)

CH4 GWP Relative to CO2 (times higher)

20

84

100

28 – 36

500

7 - 9

 

This means that over a 20-year period, methane is estimated to have 84 times the warming effect of an equivalent mass of CO2, and so on. The ranges shown are due to different assessment methods and updates to scientific understanding.

These GWP values provide a relative measure of the warming potential of methane compared to CO2. However, it’s important to note that the actual contribution to global warming depends not only on the potency of the gas but also on the quantity of emissions and the timescale considered. 

It’s important to note that different organizations and studies may use different timeframes for GWP depending on their specific objectives. The choice of timeframe can affect the assessments of the climate impact of different greenhouse gases, including methane. For example, let’s say a policy is being established that aims to reduce emissions to a specific level within the next 10 years. In this case, using a shorter timeframe GWP for methane, such as its 20-year GWP may be attractive as it aligns better with the policy timeframe that aims to achieve more near-term/immediate reductions over shorter time scales.

The 100-year GWP is a widely used timeframe that provides a balanced perspective on the long-term impact of methane. It considers both the immediate warming effect and the longer atmospheric lifetime of methane compared to CO2.

The 500-year GWP considers the longer-term effects of methane emissions. It accounts for methane’s slower decay in the atmosphere compared to CO2, which means it continues to contribute to warming for a longer period. This timeframe is particularly relevant when assessing the cumulative warming effect over several centuries.

So, when you come across varying figures related to the global warming potential of methane, the variations likely stem from different timescales considered. Such insights hold particular significance for solid waste management given methane plays a dual role as both a resource and a challenge for landfills, anaerobic digesters, and even composting operations. It’s often in the fine details, particularly in science, that we uncover a nuanced understanding and more comprehensive view of how the world works.

About the Author(s)

Bryan Staley

President, Environmental Research and Education Foundation

Bryan Staley, P.E., is president of the Environmental Research and Education Foundation, a non-profit foundation that funds and directs scientific research and educational initiatives to benefit industry participants and the communities they serve.

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