Overview of Greenhouse Gases
|Lifetime in Atmosphere||12 years|
|Global Warming Potential (100-year)||21|
U.S. Methane Emissions, By Source
Methane (CH4) is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted in the United States from human activities. In 2012, CH4 accounted for about 9% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. Methane is emitted by natural sources such as wetlands, as well as human activities such as leakage from natural gas systems and the raising of livestock. Natural processes in soil and chemical reactions in the atmosphere help remove CH4 from the atmosphere. Methane's lifetime in the atmosphere is much shorter than carbon dioxide (CO2), but CH4 is more efficient at trapping radiation than CO2. Pound for pound, the comparative impact of CH4 on climate change is over 20 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period.
Globally, over 60% of total CH4 emissions come from human activities.  Methane is emitted from industry, agriculture, and waste management activities, described below.
- Industry. Natural gas and petroleum systems are the largest source of CH4 emissions from industry in the United States. Methane is the primary component of natural gas. Some CH4 is emitted to the atmosphere during the production, processing, storage, transmission, and distribution of natural gas. Because gas is often found alongside petroleum, the production, refinement, transportation, and storage of crude oil is also a source of CH4 emissions. For more information, see the Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks sections on Natural Gas Systems and Petroleum Systems.
- Agriculture. Domestic livestock such as cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, and camels produce large amounts of CH4 as part of their normal digestive process. Also, when animals' manure is stored or managed in lagoons or holding tanks, CH4 is produced. Because humans raise these animals for food, the emissions are considered human-related. Globally, the Agriculture sector is the primary source of CH4 emissions. For more information, see the Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks Agriculture chapter.
- Waste from Homes and Businesses. Methane is generated in landfills as waste decomposes and in the treatment of wastewater. Landfills are the third largest source of CH4 emissions in the United States. For more information see the U.S. Inventory's Waste chapter.
Methane is also emitted from a number of natural sources. Wetlands are the largest source, emitting CH4 from bacteria that decompose organic materials in the absence of oxygen. Smaller sources include termites, oceans, sediments, volcanoes, and wildfires.
Emissions and Trends
Methane (CH4) emissions in the United States decreased by almost 11% between 1990 and 2012. During this time period, emissions increased from sources associated with agricultural activities, while emissions decreased from sources associated with the exploration and production of natural gas and petroleum products.
U.S. Methane Emissions, 1990-2012
Reducing Methane Emissions
There are a number of ways to reduce methane (CH4) emissions. Some examples are discussed below. EPA has a series of voluntary programs for reducing CH4 emissions, and is supporting the President’s Strategy to Reduce Methane Emissions (PDF) (15 pp, 1.88MB).
|Emissions Source||How Emissions Can be Reduced|
Upgrading the equipment used to produce, store, and transport oil and gas can reduce many of the leaks that contribute to CH4 emissions. Methane from coal mines can also be captured and used for energy. Learn more about the EPA's Natural Gas STAR Program and Coalbed Methane Outreach Program.
Waste from Homes and Businesses
Because CH4 emissions from landfill gas are a major source of CH4 emissions in the United States, emission controls that capture landfill CH4 are an effective reduction strategy. Learn more about these opportunities and the EPA's Landfill Methane Outreach Program.
1. EPA (2010). Methane and Nitrous Oxide Emissions from Natural Sources . U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, USA.
2. U.S. Department of State (2007). Projected Greenhouse Gas Emissions. In: Fourth Climate Action Report to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change . U.S. Department of State, Washington, DC, USA.
Global Warming Potential Describes Impact of Each Gas
Certain greenhouse gases (GHGs) are more effective at warming Earth ("thickening the blanket") than others.The two most important characteristics of a GHG in terms of climate impact are how well the gas absorbs energy (preventing it from immediately escaping to space), and how long the gas stays in the atmosphere.
The Global Warming Potential (GWP) for a gas is a measure of the total energy that a gas absorbs over a particular period of time (usually 100 years), compared to carbon dioxide. The larger the GWP, the more warming the gas causes. For example, methane's 100-year GWP is 21, which means that methane will cause 21 times as much warming as an equivalent mass of carbon dioxide over a 100-year time period.
- Carbon dioxide (CO2) has a GWP of 1 and serves as a baseline for other GWP values. CO2 remains in the atmosphere for a very long time - changes in atmospheric CO2 concentrations persist for thousands of years.
- Methane (CH4) has a GWP more than 20 times higher than CO2 for a 100-year time scale. CH4 emitted today lasts for only about a decade in the atmosphere, on average. However, on a pound-for-pound basis, CH4 absorbs more energy than CO2, making its GWP higher.
- Nitrous Oxide (N2O) has a GWP 300 times that of CO2 for a 100-year timescale. N2O emitted today remains in the atmosphere for more than 100 years, on average.
Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) are sometimes called high-GWP gases because, for a given amount of mass, they trap substantially more heat than CO2.
 Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, R.B. Alley, T. Berntsen, N.L. Bindoff, Z. Chen, A. Chidthaisong, J.M. Gregory, G.C. Hegerl, M. Heimann, B. Hewitson, B.J. Hoskins, F. Joos, J. Jouzel, V. Kattsov, U. Lohmann, T. Matsuno, M. Molina, N. Nicholls, J. Overpeck, G. Raga, V. Ramaswamy, J. Ren, M. Rusticucci, R. Somerville, T.F. Stocker, P. Whetton, R.A. Wood and D. Wratt (2007). Technical Summary. In: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis . Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M. Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.
 Forster, P., V. Ramaswamy, P. Artaxo, T. Berntsen, R. Betts, D.W. Fahey, J. Haywood, J. Lean, D.C. Lowe, G. Myhre, J. Nganga, R. Prinn, G. Raga, M. Schulz and R. Van Dorland (2007). Changes in Atmospheric Constituents and in Radiative Forcing. In: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis . Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M. Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.
 NRC (2010). Advancing the Science of Climate Change . National Research Council. The National Academies Press, Washington, DC, USA.
*Global Warming Potential (GWP) values are from the U.S. Inventory of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks. United Nations guidance currently requires national inventories to use GWPs from the IPCC’s Second Assessment Report.