Methane Explained: What Is It and Why Is It Such a Problem?

Whether you’re familiar with methane or you’ve just heard about it in passing, it’s a vital gas to be aware of. While most of us only know about it in relation to unpleasant odours (though methane is, in fact, odourless), there’s much more to it than its reputation would have you believe.


When it comes to climate change and rising temperatures, methane is 25 times more potent than CO2, and 80 times more potent over a period of 20 years. Accounting for roughly 30 percent of global warming since pre-industrial times, methane is proliferating faster than it ever has before.


Methane is the primary contributor to the formation of ground-level ozone, a hazardous air pollutant and greenhouse gas, exposure to which causes 1 million premature deaths every year.

United Nations Environment Program


In this article, we'll be covering all things methane. If you’ve ever questioned what methane is, how it’s produced or why it’s a problem, you’ve come to the right place.


Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about this greenhouse gas.





What Is Methane?


Let’s start with the most basic level of information you need to be aware of.


Methane is a gas, and each molecule is composed of one carbon atom, surrounded by four hydrogen atoms. Found in small quantities in the earth’s atmosphere, methane is the simplest hydrocarbon and a powerful greenhouse gas.


Due to its flammable properties, methane is used as fuel all over the world. It’s a principal component of natural gas and a potent heat absorber.




What Produces Methane?


The methane in our atmosphere is both human-made and natural, produced by a wide variety of processes. Around 60% of the world’s methane emissions are created due to human activities – the majority coming from agriculture, waste disposal and fossil fuel production. Farming is the most significant contributor, responsible for over a quarter of total emissions across the globe.


Every time a cow passes gas, a bag of food waste decomposes in landfill, or we extract and burn fossil fuels, methane is released into the atmosphere.


Right now, we’re producing more of this gas than ever before. But if it’s so natural, why is it such a problem?




Why Is Methane a Problem?


With 80 times to warming power of carbon dioxide over 20 years, pumping so much methane into the atmosphere is exacerbating the climate crisis. Thanks to its heat conducting and insulating properties, this greenhouse gas traps warmth instead of releasing it and turns up the earth’s natural temperature.


The results:


  • Melting glaciers

  • Rising sea levels

  • Frequent and more intense droughts

  • Warmer oceans

  • Extreme weather conditions


The impact of these consequences, on biodiversity and communities worldwide, is immense.


When sea levels rise and flooding increases, homes and livelihoods are lost.

When the oceans warm up and glaciers melt, critical habitats and species die.

When extreme drought takes hold, essential food and water supplies disappear.


To put it mildly: the impacts of climate change are incredibly worrying, and are caused in part by methane gas in the atmosphere.




Methane and the Food Waste Crisis


Aside from the agricultural contribution, food waste in landfills is one of the largest producers of methane released into the atmosphere. If you’re yet to familiarize yourself with the food waste crisis, it’s time to get your facts straight.


  • Over 1/3 of all food globally goes to waste.

  • The annual value of food wasted globally is $1 trillion, and it weighs 1.3 billion tonnes.

  • 25% of the world’s freshwater supply is used to grow food that is never eaten.

  • Reducing food waste is the #1 solution to the climate crisis, according to Project DrawDown – coming above electric cars, solar power and plant-based diets.

  • In the home, food waste is worth £700 per year to the average UK family ($2,275 in the USA), which collectively adds up to £14 billion per year.


When food arrives in landfills, it begins to decompose. Methane is released as a byproduct of that journey, pumped into the atmosphere in droves by super dumps all over the planet. The food waste crisis is a significant contributor to climate change.




How Can You Reduce Your Methane Impact?


While methane emissions are primarily a systemic problem to be tackled by leading governments around the globe, there are personal changes that can make a difference.


Support Renewable Energy


Since fossil fuels are a big contributor to the methane problem, using and supporting renewable energy can have a hugely positive impact. Switch to a renewable energy provider or use less gas and electricity around the home to reduce your emissions.


Eat a Plant-Based Diet


Red meat agriculture, primarily the farming of cows, is one of the key contributors to global methane emissions. By eating less beef or cutting it out of our diets entirely, we can reduce the demand for meat and slow down production.


Buy Less, Waste Less


Did you know that one of the major causes of the food waste crisis is poor planning and overbuying? When shoppers buy too much from the store, this food usually ends up in our already overflowing landfills. By thinking more carefully about what you buy and wasting less food, you can cut down on your individual methane impact.




Recycle Your Food Waste


To reduce your methane emissions further, why not consider recycling your food waste? The FoodCycler is a composting alternative that allows you to safely dispose of food scraps from the comfort of your kitchen. It doesn’t produce any foul odours, slots seamlessly into your space, and even creates organic matter you can use to fertilize your plants.


Methane can seem like a pretty complicated subject, but the science really is simple. When it comes to fighting climate change, it’s certainly something we all need to become more aware of. Keep learning, cut down your impact and make a difference – there’s still time to save our planet.

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