Pakistan’s methane problem

The country is amongst the world's top methane emitters

Syed Mohammad Ali December 24, 2021
The writer is an academic and researcher. He is also the author of Development, Poverty, and Power in Pakistan, available from Routledge

On the sidelines of the COP26 climate moot, Pakistan has signed the Global Methane Pledge alongside another 100 countries. This ambitious pledge aims to limit the world’s methane emissions by around 30 per cent over the next two decades. This is the first time that countries around the world have agreed to collectively commit to tackling the growing methane problem.

Methane is a very dangerous gas. It is both a hazardous air pollutant and a major greenhouse gas. Exposure to methane causes nearly a million premature deaths annually. In Pakistan, methane adds to the toxic mix of other pollutants to further worsen air pollution. Moreover, methane is estimated to be 80 times more potent in terms of causing global warming than carbon dioxide.

It is significant that Pakistan has signed the global pledge as well given that it is amongst the world’s top methane emitters. According to the World Resources Institute, Pakistan is amongst a dozen countries which are responsible for around two-thirds of global methane emissions.

While the need to cut methane emissions within states most responsible for causing this problem remains vital, it is important to note that not all emitter countries have the same methane profiles. For instance, Pakistan’s main source of methane emissions is agricultural production, while Indonesia’s main source of methane is waste. Livestock emissions from manure and gastroenteric releases of cows account for roughly 32 per cent of human-caused methane emissions globally. In Pakistan, this proportion is probably much higher given that it is one of the largest milk producers in the world.

The livestock sector has an immense ecological footprint. Yet, in Pakistan livestock rearing has become very important for the economy as it is responsible for generating over half of the country’s agricultural income. While moving away from the diary and livestock sector would be a hard sell, Pakistan can better manage manure by composting it and even using it to produce biogas, which in turn would help meet energy needs especially in rural areas.

Agricultural methane doesn’t only come from livestock rearing. Rice production, especially when it entails flooding fields, prevent oxygen from penetrating the soil, creating ideal conditions for methane-emitting bacteria. Changing rice paddy cultivation and irrigation practices would thus also be useful in lessening methane being released into the air, alongside saving our highly stressed water resources.

Ineffective waste management is another problem. The International Energy Agency estimates that 12% of total global methane emissions come from solid waste and waste landfills. Overpopulated cities like Lahore have become a hotspot for methane emissions. Satellite images this summer identified a large methane plume over the Lakhodair landfill in Lahore. The operator of this giant landfill blamed higher-than-average waste dumping as the cause of the toxic plume. Yet, the true extent of methane release from waste dumps across the country remains unknown.

Open dumping and even trash burning are still common ways to dispose of waste. Waste separation and recycling receive little attention. While some efforts have been made to initiative public-private partnerships for waste management, the use of sustainable waste disposal methods, such as composting, remain scare.

Pakistan can do more to capture landfill gas and generate energy from it to displace other polluting forms of fuels. Experts recommend that landfill gas capture should be made mandatory for any entity operating a landfill. Methane can potentially be combusted on site, or it can be cleaned, bottled and sold as BioCNG to displace fossil natural gas. Methane can even be harnessed to power landfill sites themselves, hence making the cost of building this capacity worthwhile. One hopes to see more international financing being funneled towards such efforts, and greater domestic resolve by our decision-makers to implement the aforementioned measures now that Pakistan has internationally committed to drastically reducing its methane emissions.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 24th, 2021.

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