CO2 or Methane: Who do you Love?

by John Brian Shannon

Greenhouse gas is a catch-all term used to describe a class of gases — either naturally-occurring or man-made (anthropogenic) which have a detrimental effect on the Earth’s atmosphere. It is no longer in academic dispute that any upset to the natural atmospheric equilibrium can wreak havoc on the climate of the entire planet.

As more of these gases are added to the planet’s atmosphere they allow more of the Sun’s rays to penetrate into the air mass which surrounds our planet, instead of bouncing harmlessly back into space. Scientists refer to this process as ‘solar forcing’ whereby more heat is added to the Earth each year than can be removed by natural systems. When more heat is allowed in, more of the polar ice caps melt each summer. It’s a simple equation.

It is likely that later this century there will be no northern ice cap. The other ice cap covers the continent Antarctica which is nearly the size of the United States, and is permanently covered in ice. The ice cap in Antarctica is dissipating at an increasing rate and that is no longer in academic dispute either. Both effectively function as the air-conditioning system for planet Earth and trillions of dollars are at stake for the world farming community.

Heat and drought are the deadly enemies of food crops and both excessive heat and drought are on the increase as more solar forcing is added to Earth’s climate equation. Scientists say that in the best-case scenario — with modern technology and farming practices, that up to a 2 degree worldwide average temperature increase can be accommodated with the only disruptions being in the number of food-producer bankruptcies and higher food costs for consumers. According to scientists, it is beyond our present-day ability to compensate for any worldwide temperature increase of more than 2 degrees.

Here is a staggering number to keep in mind, it costs farmers, ag corporations, consumers and governments one-trillion-dollars per year, for each one degree of worldwide temperature increase – costs which are already starting to be passed on to consumers and taxpayers.

So, who do you love: CO2 or methane? There is no doubt all greenhouse gases contribute to global warming, but some are worse than others — which is why a significant and growing movement is afoot these days to enhance and enlarge the Montreal Protocol an international agreement which limits ozone-depleting gases — to include selected greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide.

Which makes some amount of sense, as methane causes 72 times more global warming per tonne than CO2. Nitrous oxide causes 289 times more global warming per tonne than CO2. Others are exponentially worse, such as sulfur hexafluoride which contributes 16,300 times it’s weight to our atmospheric problems. Get used to hearing the term CO2-equivalent we will be hearing a lot about that in the coming months.

The worldwide tonnage of these pollutants are much lower than the billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere each year, but at those ratios even a few million tons can do a lot of lasting damage. Also, some of these emissions can stay in the atmosphere for up to 50,000 years eating ozone the entire time.

Atmospheric lifetime and GWP relative to CO2 at different time horizon for various greenhouse gases.

Gas name

Chemical
formula

  Lifetime
(years)

Global warming potential (GWP) for given time horizon

20-yr

100-yr

500-yr

Carbon dioxide

CO2

See above

1

1

1

Methane

CH4

12

72

25

7.6

Nitrous oxide

N2O

114

289

298

153

CFC-12

CCl2F2

100

11,000

10,900

5,200

HCFC-22

CHClF2

12

5,160

1,810

549

Tetrafluoromethane

CF4

50,000

5,210

7,390

11,200

Hexafluoroethane

C2F6

10,000

8,630

12,200

18,200

Sulfur hexafluoride

SF6

3,200

16,300

22,800

32,600

Nitrogen trifluoride

NF3

740

12,300

17,200

20,700

This chart is courtesy of Wikipedia, to view it full size, click here.

More CO2 is produced by our civilization than any other gas and it is prudent to limit CO2 emissions wherever possible — and to use carbon capture and storage to mitigate anthropogenic CO2 production. But it is beginning to look like all of the other greenhouse gases are the real story — and the ones most easily reduced.

At one-trillion-dollars per one-degree-of-global-warming, it is already costing consumers and taxpayers a huge amount of money. If our civilization spent just ten percent of that mitigating all of the other greenhouse gases besides CO2, we might be starting to show our planet and each other some respect.

And then, we would then know the answer to the question; Who do you Love?

JOHN BRIAN SHANNON

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